What is spinal cord injury (SCI) in children?

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body. It is protected by the vertebrae in your back. The spinal cord sends information from the brain to the body, and carries sensory information from the skin, bones, muscles, and organs back to the brain. 

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is when the spinal cord is damaged from an accident or other traumatic incident. A SCI may be a bruise (contusion), a partial tear, or a complete tear (transection) in the spinal cord. SCI can cause permanent damage in children, but some functions can help be re-gained through Physical Therapy depending on the level of the SCI.


What are the general symptoms of a spinal cord injury in a child?

Symptoms of SCI vary depending on where the spinal cord is injured. Symptoms can be different for every child. Right after a spinal cord injury, a child may have spinal shock. Spinal shock is a loss or decrease in feeling, muscle movement, and reflexes. As swelling and the initial spinal shock goes away, other symptoms may occur.

There are two types of SCI: Complete injuries and Incomplete injuries. They are based on the symptoms below the point of injury. With a Complete SCI, there is no movement or feeling below the level of the spinal cord that is injured. With an Incomplete SCI, there is still some feeling and/or movement below the level of the spinal cord that is injured.

Symptoms of any level SCI may include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of voluntary muscle movement in the chest, core, arms, or legs
  • Breathing problems
  • Loss of feeling in the chest, core, arms, legs, or buttocks
  • Loss of bowel and bladder function
  • Poor blood pressure control, sweating, shivering, and abnormal function of the stomach and intestines


How is acute spinal cord injury treated in a child?

Physical Therapy treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is, as well as the location of the spinal cord injury.                                          

During Physical Therapy, your therapist will work with your child to assist to help them overcome the difficulties of no longer having use of certain parts of their bodies. Physical Therapy will focus on preventing muscles from becoming weak or stiffening and having a contracture. Your Physical Therapist will work to retrain your child to use other muscles for tasks and mobility, and help your child to become as independent as possible.



What causes a spinal cord injury in a child?

There are many causes of SCI in children. The more common injuries occur when the area of the spine or neck is bent, squeezed, or compressed. This can happen from:

  • Complicated delivery during birth, which most often affects the spinal cord in the neck
  • Severe falls
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Sports injuries
  • Diving accidents
  • Trampoline accidents
  • Gunshots
  • Stab wounds


What are the more specific symptoms depending on the level of the spinal cord that is injured?

With an injury to the neck (cervical region), your child will experience loss of muscle function or strength in the arms and legs and loss of feeling below the point of injury. This is called tetraplegia or quadriplegia, and there will also be sensory loss. With an Injury to the upper spinal cord (thoracic region), your child will experience weak chest muscles. The child may need help with breathing using a breathing machine. With an injury to the lower spinal cord (lumbar and sacral regions), your child will experience paralysis and a loss of function in their legs. It can also cause loss of nerve and muscle control to the bowel and bladder. This is called paraplegia.