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A spinal cord injury is any damage to the spinal cord that is caused by trauma, rather than a birth defect or medical condition that involves the spinal cord (such as a spinal cord tumor or tethered spinal cord syndrome).
Spinal cord injuries can vary in severity—from slight bruising to complete tears—as well as location. Serious injuries are classified according to the degree of lost movement and sensation they cause:
Quadriplegic/tetraplegic (“quad” derives from the Latin word for four” and ‘tetra’ derives from the word for five, implying loss of control of the trunk muscles)
SCIs cause loss of movement and sensation in both arms and both legs. They also affect the muscles of the chest, meaning that a child with this type of injury may require mechanical support for breathing.
Paraplegic (“para” comes from the Greek term for “half”)
SCIs cause loss of motion and sensation in the lower half of the body, including the legs.
Virtually any type of trauma can result in a SCI. Some of the most common traumatic situations children experience are:
• motor vehicle accidents (either with the child riding as a passenger or struck as a pedestrian)
• sports injuries
• child abuse or other incidences of violence
The exact symptoms your child experiences will depend on the degree of severity and particular location of her SCI.
Right after the trauma, she may go through spinal shock—a pronounced loss of feeling, muscle movement and reflexes below the level of her injury. This is caused by swelling. In the case of minor SCIs (such as bruises), spinal shock can subside over the next couple of days as the swelling goes down, and some or all sensation and functions may gradually return.
When a SCI is more severe, however, other symptoms will start to emerge. These can include any or all of the following, depending on the location of the injury:
• muscle weakness
• partial or complete loss of muscle movement in the chest, arms or legs
• breathing difficulty
• partial or complete loss of feeling in the chest, arms or legs
• loss of bowel and bladder function
In general, the higher in the back or neck the injury is located, the more extensive the symptoms will be. For example, if your child’s injury is in the lower portion of her spinal column, she may have reduced or absent feelings in (and impaired control of) her legs, bladder and bowels. If her SCI is in the upper neck region, she may be unable to move her arms or legs or to breathe on her own.
SCIs can be severe and potentially life-threatening injuries. You should always seek immediate help for your child from trained, qualified emergency medical responders.
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