Infant Spinal Cord Damage

Although children and infants only account for 5% of all spinal cord damage cases in the United States, the results of such a traumatic injury can leave them with a host of additional medical issues. It may be frightening to learn that your infant’s spinal cord was damaged, but by educating yourself on the causes, treatment options, and long-term outlook, you’ll be better equipped in knowing what to expect and how to help your baby.

What is Infant Spinal Cord Damage?

Spinal cord damage occurs when blunt force trauma or a medical malady affects the spine of the infant. This could come in the form of a bruise (a contusion) or a complete tear (a transection).

Spinal cord damage can also come froma lack of diagnosis or a misdiagnosis of spina bifida, a condition in which the vertebrae does not completely enclose the raw nerves of the spine. If the child has spina bifida –especially myelomeningocele, the nerves of the spinal column are at risk of injury when the medical staff is unaware of the condition and touches or damages the nerves.

According to the Boston Children’s Hospital, around to 60% to 75% of all spinal cord injuries sustained by infants and children occur in the neck area. Around 20% occur in the upper back or the chest area, whereas 5% to 20%  occur in the spinal cord area of the lower back.

Generally, the higher up in the body location that the injury occurs, the more serious the damage will be.

How Does Childbirth Cause Infant Spinal Cord Damage?

Different things that could cause spinal cord damage in relation to difficult deliveries. Stressful deliveries could result in a spinal cord injury due to traction on the infant’s trunk during breech delivery, rotational stresses applied to the spinal axis, brachial plexus Palsy-related damage to the spinal cord and nerves, and hyperextension of the fetal head in abnormal birthing positions (especially breech and face-first, called “turtle syndrome”).

In other cases, although rare, the spinal cord may be overstretched during delivery. Unfortunately, this type of birth injury may cause permanent damage.

What are the Symptoms of Infant Spinal Cord Damage?

Symptoms will vary greatly, depending on what part of the spinal cord was injured, and how severe the damage is. Generally, however, common symptoms include:

  • Loss of touch sensations
  • Inability to move
  • Bowel and bladder control problems (which is difficult to determine with infants)
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Spasms
  • Stinging pains, caused by nerve damage around the spinal cord
  • Difficulties with breathing
  • Weakness

Keep in mind, as mentioned earlier, symptoms will depend on the severity of the injury; not all of the listed symptoms will be experienced by each infant.

What are the Long-Term Effects of Infant Spinal Cord Damage?

Some children never recover from spinal cord damage. In some instances, spinal cord damage can cause paralysis. In other instances, spinal cord damage creates intellectual disabilities, and in severe cases, death may occur.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the prognosis of spinal cord damage will depend on if the injury was complete or incomplete. If an injury is incomplete, there is still a way for the brain to communicate and send messages to the spinal cord, which means that motor and sensory function may still be obtainable. If the injury is complete, however, there is total loss of the sensory and motor functions below the injury level, and therefore, the prognosis for recovery is grim.

Fortunately, many spinal cord injuries are not severe enough to cause permanent damage, according to Janice S. HayesPhDRN, of the Broward General Medical Center. In many cases, the infant may be immobile while healing and may require using an orthotic brace, lumbar brace, or any other type of device that promotes healing in the affected area. In some instances, steroids may also be administered in order to prevent any further damage. 

Keep in mind, however, that these are general guidelines. For specific questions pertaining to your baby’s injuries, be sure to consult with a qualified physician.