Spinal Cord Injury in Children: Why Children Have Better Recovery Potential

Spinal cord injury in children is not common, but it does happen and can affect your child's development.

Is spinal cord injury in children any different than it is in adults?

A key factor is that a child’s body is still learning and growing, while an adult’s body is fully developed.

Luckily, only about 5% of spinal cord injury patients are children.

In this article, we’ll go over what differentiates spinal cord injury in children and what parents should do to help their child with SCI.

Spinal Cord Injury in Children

is spinal cord injury in children different than it is in adults?

Did you know that spinal cord injury in children shows very different characteristics than that in adults?

Neurological Recovery

According to this review, “Pediatric patients with traumatic SCI have different mechanisms of injury and have a better neurological recovery potential than adults.”

Because cells in children regenerate at a much quicker rate than those in adults, children tend to have increased plasticity. Generally, the more plasticity you have, the quicker your recovery.

It’s important to note that because there haven’t been any studies specifically comparing recovery from spinal cord injury in children vs. adults, evidence that neurological recovery is higher in children limited.

Spine Development

Age plays a huge role in spinal cord injury recovery because children’s bodies are still developing.

Children who experience spinal cord injury before adolescence have a greater risk of developing scoliosis, which is when your spine starts to curve to the side.

study of 130 SCI patients under 21 years old was showed that 97% of patients who were injured before adolescence got scoliosis.

In contrast, only 52% of patients who were injured after adolescence developed scoliosis.

Skin Fragility

Children have thinner skin so they can easily get skin irritations like pressure sores or ulcers.

Naturally, our bodies get antsy and have to move after sitting in one position for too long. However with paralysis, many don’t feel the urge to shift positions and develop pressure sores due to too much long-term pressure.

To prevent pressure sores, check skin daily for irritations, use pillows to reduce friction, and make sure that your child shifts positions every once in a while.

Body Awareness

It’s difficult to assess sensory and motor functions in very young children because they’re not fully in sync with their bodies yet.

Younger children generally don’t know how to accurately express what they can or can’t feel and don’t really understand what it means to have reduced sensation.

Similarly, motor functions like contracting the sphincter might not yet be learned, so spinal cord injury complications like bowel dysfunction are difficult to determine.

Next, we’ll discuss how a child’s anatomy relates to spinal cord injury.

SCIWORA (Spinal Cord Injury Without Radiographic Abnormality)

xray of spinal cord injury in child

The most common causes of spinal cord injury in children are car accidents, sports, and falls.

Spinal cord injury in children typically occurs in the cervical region (the neck).

A child’s neck is more prone to injury because they have larger head-to-body ratios.

In fact, 80% of SCIs in children under 8 are cervical vs. 30-40% in adults.

When a child gets in an accident, the elasticity of their ligaments might allow for the spine to be completely free of fracture.

A young spinal column can stretch much further than the spinal cord (up to 5 cm).  So even though the spine might be fine, the spinal cord still gets damaged.

This is how spinal cord injury without radiographic activity (SCIWORA) occurs. On a radiograph or CT scan, everything appears fine, but through an MRI, evidence of SCI becomes apparent.

SCIWORA is most common in children under 8 because this is when their head-to-body ratios are greatest and ligaments are most flexible.

What Parents Should Do About Spinal Cord Injury in Children

parent of children with spinal cord injury

Your continuous support is extremely valuable for your child’s recovery.

News of spinal cord injury in children is often much harder on the parent than the child.

In fact, children with spinal cord injury display similar levels of depression and anxiety as children without SCI.

However, just like adults, there are similar characteristics that children who do experience depression or anxiety share.

Anxiety is most common at the beginning because living with spinal cord injury can require lots of lifestyle adjustments. As your child learns to cope, anxiety should decrease.

Similarly, those with less functional independence are more likely to have depression than those who have more movement.

Parents should focus on helping their children develop a sense of self and confidence.

Teach them how to be independent and encourage them to be social. This will help them feel less inhibited by spinal cord injury as they get older.

Try to be as positive as you can because your children can often sense when something’s wrong. You want to make everything feel as normal as possible for them.

Hopefully, this article helped you understand spinal cord injury in children and how to best support your child through this difficult time.

For more information on the recovery process, check out this Guide to Spinal Cord Injury Recovery. Good luck!