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Spinal Cord Injury

Although most babies make it through labor and delivery without injury, trauma to the baby can occur during this process. About 2 in 1000 babies are injured during birth. Although some of these injuries may be unavoidable, many can be prevented by proper medical care throughout the process of labor and delivery. In addition, medical providers should provide appropriate screening and prenatal care during the course of the pregnancy to ensure the safest mode of delivery for the baby and identify risk factors that may lead to a birth injury. Medical professionals may fail to act in ways that would have prevented an injury, or they may even cause the injury to the baby through the actions that they take while attending the birth.

One of the more severe types of birth trauma is a spinal cord birth injury. This type of injury can leave a baby with severe and permanent physical limitations, and can even be fatal.

What is a spinal cord birth injury?

The spinal cord is a critical part of the body’s nervous system, which carries signals between the brain and the rest of the body. There are four main sections of the spinal cord: cervical (found in the neck), thoracic (found in the mid-back), lumbar (found in the lower back), and sacral (found in the very lower back, where the spine meets the pelvis).

When an injury occurs to any part of the spinal cord, it disrupts the connection between the body and the brain. This can prevent sensory signals from traveling to the brain, leading to difficulty in feeling parts of the body. It can also disrupt motor signals from traveling from the brain out to the muscles, leading to difficulty in moving the body.

Trauma to the spinal cord during the process of labor and delivery can cause a significant injury, which can partially or completely tear the spinal cord. This can potentially happen at any level, but is most common in the lower cervical or upper thoracic regions in vertex (head down) births, while injuries to the lumbar or sacral regions are more common in breech births.

Although the spinal cord can sometimes recover from a minor injury, a significant spinal cord injury often causes permanent changes to the baby’s sensation and motor function. Medical science has not yet discovered a way to reverse the damage from a spinal cord injury, but treatments may help to manage the symptoms and improve the quality of life for affected children.

Baby being massaged

Cervical Spinal Cord Injury

A cervical spinal cord injury affects the top of the spinal cord, located in the neck. Injury to this area of the spinal cord affects all of the areas beneath it as well, resulting in a loss of sensation and motor function throughout most of the body. Both the arms and the legs may be paralyzed, a condition known as quadriplegia. When the injury is to the upper part of the cervical spinal cord, the patient may not be able to breathe on their own, and may require a machine called a ventilator to keep them alive.

Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury

Injuries to the thoracic area of the spinal cord, located in the mid-back, will generally cause minimal to no impact on the sensation and motor function of the arms. Patients will also be able to breathe on their own. However, injury to the thoracic spinal cord affects the legs and parts of the torso. In cases of severe thoracic spinal cord injury, patients will generally not be able to walk on their own.

Lumbar Spinal Cord Injury

Damage to the lower parts of the spinal cord will generally leave the arms and torso unaffected, but can significantly affect the legs, making walking difficult or impossible. In addition, this injury can interrupt the pathways that control the bladder and bowels, which can mean that the baby is unable to learn to control these vital functions as children normally do during early childhood.

Doctor holding a new born baby

Causes of Birth-Related Spinal Cord Injuries

A spinal cord injury at birth most commonly occurs during a complicated delivery. It may be the result of medical malpractice by one or more medical professionals involved with the baby’s delivery. Potential causes of birth trauma include:

  • The use of forceps or vacuum extractors. When not employed very carefully, these can easily cause injury to the baby during use.
  • Strain on the baby’s neck due to excessive pulling or twisting by birth attendants. This is especially common in the case of a shoulder dystocia, where the head is delivered but the shoulder is stuck against the mother’s pubic bone. If a birth attendant is poorly or inadequately trained to manage this complication, they could cause injury to the neck by excessively pulling or rotating the baby’s head. 
  • A rushed delivery. This may occur because the umbilical cord is compressed and the baby is being deprived of oxygen, or because of a severe loss of blood in the mother. When delivery is rushed, injury to the baby is much more likely.
  • Undiagnosed spina bifida or other neural tube defects. This is a birth defect in which the spinal column doesn’t form properly, leaving a part of the spinal cord and spinal nerves exposed and unprotected. Proper medical care should lead to a diagnosis before birth, so that a birth plan can be created that best protects the baby. If the diagnosis is not made prenatally, then the spinal cord has a high likelihood of being injured during delivery.

Signs of a Spinal Cord Injury in Babies

If your baby suffers a spinal cord injury at birth, symptoms are usually spotted immediately during the physical examination that takes place after delivery. However, in some cases, it takes several days for signs to appear. Signs that your baby may have experienced injury from birth trauma include:

Some of these could also be signs of other conditions, like cerebral palsy. Tests are needed to determine the correct diagnosis. These generally include imaging studies, like an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI, which allow doctors to see whether the spinal cord is injured and, if so, to determine the location of the injury. A spinal cord birth injury is sometimes misdiagnosed as cerebral palsy or another condition, if the proper testing is not used to ensure the correct diagnosis. A severe spinal cord injury can even be a cause of death in the immediate neonatal period, if the proper diagnosis is not quickly made.

How Doctors Respond to Spinal Cord Injuries

The best way to treat spinal cord injury is by taking precautions to prevent it from occurring. Medical staff should vigilantly monitor you and your baby when risk factors are present. They should have the appropriate staff and equipment prepared to take any quick action. Professionals who don’t recognize or choose to ignore risk factors are liable for medical malpractice.

To avoid the permanent complications associated with SCI, doctors may administer corticosteroids to reduce swelling and stabilize the injury. They may quickly consult with a specialized medical staff or a children’s hospital and potentially recommend surgery. Immediate treatment options may include using a ventilator, feeding tube, or bladder catheter. Taking these steps won’t cure the problem; however, early intervention leads to better outcomes for your child.

Doctor and mother testing a baby

What options do parents have?

Parents often struggle to come to terms with their newborn’s life-altering injury. On top of that, they’ll be immediately faced with the need to arrange ongoing medical treatment for their baby. These medical bills can cause significant financial stress for many families.

If your baby’s injury was caused by a medical professional’s failure to provide proper care to you and your baby, then they may be required to pay compensation for the harm that they caused. This includes the cost of your baby’s medical treatment, such as medications, therapies, and surgeries, as well as caregiving and other needs. Although it won’t fix your child’s injury, this financial compensation can help you to meet your child’s needs and care for them as well as possible.

If you’re considering filing a claim, then you should consult with an experienced birth injury attorney. After investigating the events of your pregnancy and birth to determine if any medical malpractice occurred, they will let you know if your claim is likely to be successful. Your attorney serves as an advocate for you and your child, ensuring that your baby will get the treatment they need now and in the future.

You’re Not Alone!

The process of emotional adjustment to a baby’s injury can be very challenging for any parent. If your baby has suffered a spinal cord injury or other type of birth injury, it’s important to know that you aren’t alone. Fortunately, there are resources available to help you cope with medical, financial, and/or emotional concerns. These include support groups and professional organizations, such as the Birth Injury Center, which can help you develop a comprehensive care plan and navigate this difficult path.

The Birth Injury Center can aid with finding resources for yourself, your baby, and the rest of the family. We’re committed to helping you get the supportive measures your family needs. To learn more about how the Birth Injury Center can help you, please take advantage of the resources here on our website. You can also reach out for further assistance by sending a message through our online form. We will be happy to answer any questions or connect you to resources that may help you.

Written by:
Birth Injury Center Team

The Birth Injury Center aims to create informational web content and guides to help women and their families seeking support and guidance for birth injuries caused by medical negligence. All of the content published across The Birth Injury Center website has been thoroughly investigated and approved by medical expert Natalie Speer, RNC-OB, Attorney Ryan Mahoney.