The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body. It sends data from the brain to the body, and carries sensory information from the skin, bones, muscles, and organs back to the brain.
Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is when the spinal cord is damaged from an accident or other situation. An SCI may be a bruise (contusion), a partial tear, or a complete tear (transection) in the spinal cord. SCI is a common cause of long-lasting (permanent) disability and death in children. Acute SCI is a medical emergency.
There are many causes of SCI in children. The more common injuries occur when the area of the spine or neck is bent or squeezed (compressed). This can happen from:
Symptoms vary depending on where the spinal cord is injured. Symptoms can be different in each child. Right after a spinal cord injury, a child may have spinal shock. This causes a loss or decrease in feeling, muscle movement, and reflexes. As swelling goes away, other symptoms may occur.
Doctors divide SCIs into two types. They are based on the symptoms below the point of injury:
The symptoms of SCI may include:
Symptoms depend on where the spinal cord is injured. For example:
The symptoms of SCI can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms, health history, and recent injuries. He or she will give your child a physical exam. The full extent of the SCI may not be known right away. Your child may also have tests, such as:
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
SCI may first be treated at the scene of the accident or injury. This is done by keeping the head and neck from moving. Treatment may also include:
Recovery from SCI requires a long-term stay in the hospital and rehabilitation (rehab). A team of doctors, nurses, and other specialists will watch and manage your child’s health. This includes managing:
During rehab, physical, occupational, or speech therapists will work with your child. Rehab focuses on preventing muscles from becoming weak (wasting) or stiffening (contracture). Therapists work to retrain your child to use other muscles for tasks and mobility.
Talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.
Ongoing (chronic) problems can include:
Acute spinal cord injury can be very upsetting to your child and to your whole family. Your child's healthcare team will teach family members how to best care for a child with SCI. They will note what problems will need medical attention right away. Your child will need frequent healthcare visits and tests over time to track his or her progress.
It is important to focus on maximizing your child's abilities at home and in the community. You can encourage your child to strengthen his or her self-esteem and have independence.
Call the healthcare provider if your child has:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
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