Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Spinal Cord Injury in Children


Gordon Mao

, MD, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Reviewed/Revised Sep 2021 | Modified Sep 2022
Topic Resources

The spinal cord is a long, fragile tubelike structure that begins at the end of the brain stem and continues down to the lower part of the spine. The spinal cord consists of nerves that carry incoming and outgoing messages between the brain and the rest of the body. (See also Spinal Cord Spinal Cord The spinal cord is a long, fragile tubelike structure that begins at the end of the brain stem and continues down almost to the bottom of the spine. The spinal cord consists of bundles of nerve... read more .)

Although children younger than 10 years have the lowest rate of spinal cord injuries, such injuries are not rare. Most spinal injuries in children occur in the neck area.

In children younger than 8 years, neck spinal injuries are most commonly caused by motor vehicle crashes, falls, and child abuse. In children older than 8 years, motor vehicle crashes and sports injuries, particularly injuries due to gymnastics, diving, horseback riding, American football, and wrestling, are common causes of spine injuries. Compared with adults, children have distinct anatomic features (such as larger head size-to-body and elasticity of spinal ligaments) that make the structures protecting the spinal cord (including the vertebrae) more flexible. Because these structures are so flexible, the spinal cord can be less protected from being stretched, torn, compressed, or otherwise damaged when the neck is injured. Thus, the spinal cord can be more likely to be damaged even when the vertebrae are not damaged.

Children with spinal cord injury may have brief symptoms such as tingling and weakness. Children may also have shooting pains down the spine or the arms or legs. In about 25% of affected children, onset of symptoms, such as weakness, numbness, other nerve damage, or even complete paralysis, is delayed from 30 minutes to 4 days after injury, making it more difficult for doctors to diagnose spinal cord injury.

Spinal cord injury that is not seen on imaging is related to pulling or stretching of the spinal cord, pressure on the nerves or spinal cord (spinal cord impingement), spinal cord concussion (similar to a brain concussion Concussion A concussion is an alteration in mental function or level of awareness caused by a head injury. A concussion may involve a loss of consciousness, can occur without obvious damage to brain structures... read more ), and injury to the blood vessels. Injury that is not visible on imaging tests is called "spinal cord injury without radiologic abnormality" (SCIWORA). This type of injury occurs almost exclusively in children and often occurs in the neck area. In SCIWORA, the child has symptoms that suggest a spinal cord injury, but the spinal column is straight and no bone abnormalities are seen on imaging studies. (SCIWORA was originally described in the 1980s, when magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] scanners were scarcely used. MRI scanners identify most abnormalities that would not have been identified using other imaging tests. Because MRI scanners are more readily available, the term SCIWORA is used less commonly.)

Where Is the Spinal Cord Damaged?

Where Is the Spinal Cord Damaged?

Diagnosis of Spinal Cord Injury in Children

  • X-rays

  • Usually computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging

Doctors are alert for spinal cord injury in any child who has been in a motor vehicle crash, has fallen from a height greater than about 9 feet (3 meters), or has had a submersion (for example, diving) injury. Suspicion is higher in children who had any symptoms suggestive of nerve injury, such as tingling, weakness, or shooting pains.

Imaging usually begins with x-rays. If a fracture, dislocation, or partial dislocation is suspected based on x-ray findings or because of the way the injury occurred, computed tomography (CT) is usually done. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is usually also done.

Sometimes a spinal cord injury may not be seen on imaging tests.

Treatment of Spinal Cord Injury in Children

  • Immobilization

  • Supportive care

  • Rehabilitation

  • Sometimes surgery and postsurgical rehabilitation

Children with a spinal injury should be transferred to a pediatric trauma center.

Treatment is similar to treatment of spinal cord injury in adults Treatment Most spinal cord injuries result from motor vehicle crashes, falls, assaults, and sports injuries. Symptoms, such as loss of sensation, loss of muscle strength, and loss of bowel, bladder, and... read more Treatment , including immobilization and support for breathing and circulation as needed. Surgery is less frequently done in children than adults with spinal cord injury

quiz link

Test your knowledge

Take a Quiz!