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Spinal Cord Injury in Children: Secondary Effects and Recovery Outlook

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

Did you know that children with spinal cord injuries can recover easier and quicker than adults?

Children’s bodies heal faster than adults because they’re still developing. Their bones, muscles, and organs are continuously working towards growing, getting stronger, and functioning more efficiently.

However, their bodies are also more fragile, so a SCI can cause more complications in children than adults.

In this article, we’ll go over what differentiates spinal cord injury in children and the best ways to promote recovery.

How Common is Spinal Cord Injury in Children?

Children only make up a small portion of all reported spinal cord injuries.  

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center’s 2019 Report, only 0.74% of 34,140 SCI patients were children 12 years old or younger.

However, SCIs become more common as children transition into adolescence. From that same report, the occurrence of spinal cord injury from ages 13-17 was 7.96%.

This can be explained through different causes of SCI.

Car accidents and falls are the most common cause of SCI in young children. In contrast, teens are more likely to get SCIs from driving cars, playing sports, and engaging in reckless behavior.

Now that you understand what causes spinal cord injuries in children, let’s go over how an SCI can affect development.

How Does Spinal Cord Injury Affect Children Differently Than Adults?

child with spinal cord injury on a wheelchair

Because children are constantly growing and developing, spinal cord injuries will affect their bodies differently than adults.

Specifically, children with SCIs have an increased risk of developing scoliosis and pressure sores.


Scoliosis occurs when your spine develops a curve to the side.

study of 130 SCI patients 21 years old and under found that 97% of patients injured before adolescence got scoliosis. In contrast, only 52% of patients injured after adolescence developed scoliosis.

Similarly to adults, children who have paralysis in the trunk often struggle to sit upright and may start leaning to the side.

Scoliosis doesn’t develop overnight, but it can be caused by consistently compromised posture. And because children are still growing, this puts them at higher risk for developing scoliosis than adults with SCI.

Pressure Sores

Children also have much thinner skin than adults. As a result, it is very easy for them to develop pressure sores.

Pressure sores occur when you sit or lay in the same position for too long. The prolonged pressure cuts off blood flow and tissues start to die, which causes skin to break down.

Pressure sores are common after SCI because impaired sensation eliminates feelings of restlessness that urge us to change positions in order to reduce pressure in one spot.

Now that you understand some of the complications associated with SCI in children, let’s discuss the importance of a thorough diagnosis.

Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injury in Children

x-rays of spinal cord injury in children

It can be difficult to diagnose spinal cord injuries in children. Sometimes, SCIs won’t be visible through x-rays.

Children have extremely elastic ligaments, which allows the spine to extend without signs of fracture.

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

This occurrence is called spinal cord injury without radiographic activity (SCIWORA). On a radiograph or CT scan, your spinal column may appear normal; however, through an MRI, evidence of an SCI becomes apparent.

It can also be challenging to assess sensory and motor functions in very young children because they lack body awareness.

Younger children may struggle to express what they can or can’t feel and might not understand what it means to have reduced sensation.

Similarly, motor functions like contracting the sphincter might not yet be learned, so complications like bowel dysfunction can be difficult to identify.

Therefore, it’s essential to work with pediatric physical and occupational therapists that understand these challenges and can effectively communicate with your child for optimal recovery.

Recovery for Children with SCI

how to promote recovery after spinal cord injury in children

Recovery from a spinal cord injury (if it is an incomplete injury) is typically quicker for children than it is for adults because they have higher levels of neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to rewire itself. By stimulating the spinal cord with repetitive movement, functions weakened by SCI can likely be recovered.

The more repetitions you perform, the more you’ll promote neurological adaptations in the spinal cord.

Because children have more neuroplasticity, fewer repetitions are required to recover functions.

Understanding Spinal Cord Injury in Children: Key Points

Unlike adults, children’s bodies are still developing and an SCI can significantly affect growth and posture.

Luckily, children’s spinal cords are extremely adaptive and can rewire themselves much quicker than those of adults through consistent practice, as long as their SCI was an incomplete injury.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand how spinal cord injury affects children. For more information on the recovery process, check out this Guide to Spinal Cord Injury Recovery. Good luck!

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