A spinal cord injury during birth can affect the rest of a child’s life, leaving them with a number of lasting and disabling medical issues. According to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, roughly 60 to 75 percent of spinal cord injuries affect the neck, 20 percent occur in the chest or upper back, and 5 to 20 percent affect the lower back. Typically, the farther up on the body the injury occurs, the more severe the damage. In some cases, spinal cord injuries can result in paralysis, intellectual disabilities, and even death.
A spinal cord injury can be either “incomplete” or “complete.” If it is incomplete, there is still a chance that the brain can send signals down the spinal cord, and sensory and motor function may still be attainable with treatment. Unfortunately, complete spinal cord injuries result in a total loss of motor and sensory functions below the injury site.
Understanding the Spinal Cord and How Injuries Affect It
Understanding how the spinal cord functions is key to recognizing the impact of injuries to this vital part of the central nervous system.
The spinal cord extends from the base of the brain down through the backbone, ending just above the lower back. It is protected by the vertebral column, which consists of 33 vertebrae, each separated by intervertebral discs that act as cushions. In addition, the spinal cord is divided into four regions, each corresponding to different parts of the body:
- Cervical: Neck
- Thoracic: Upper back
- Lumbar: Lower back
- Sacral: Hips
The spinal cord transmits signals from the brain to various body parts and vice versa. This transmission is essential for sensory functions—like feeling heat or pain, and motor functions—such as moving your limbs. It’s also responsible for reflex actions, which are automatic responses to stimuli without direct involvement from the brain. Unfortunately, injuries to the spinal cord can lead to varying degrees of impairment, depending on the location and severity of the injury.
Overall, spinal cord injuries can disrupt the transmission of signals, leading to loss of movement (paralysis), sensation, or function in affected areas of the body. These serious outcomes underscore the importance of protecting this critical part of the body and seeking prompt medical attention when injuries do occur.
What Are the Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries in Infants?
Infant spinal cord damage occurs when the spine suffers a blunt force trauma during birth, usually due to a medical mistake. The injury could come in the form of a contusion (a bruise) or a transection (a tear).
Another medical error that could result in damage to a baby’s spine during pregnancy or delivery include a misdiagnosis of a condition called spina bifida, in which the raw nerves of the spine are not completely enclosed by the vertebrae. Spina bifuda is the most common central nervous system birth defect. If the medical staff is not aware of this condition during birth, they can cause further damage by touching these nerves.
Difficult labor or prolonged deliveries are another cause of spinal cord injuries. Stress on or twisting of the baby’s body could cause the spinal cord to be overstretched during the birthing process, often leading to injury. Abnormal birthing positions can also cause undue stress on the baby’s spine. For instance, this can happen when the baby is breech—born bottom first instead of head first.
The use of birth-assisting tools like forceps or vacuum extractors are another risk factor. While these tools are designed to aid the delivery process, their improper use can apply harmful pressure on the baby’s spinal cord, risking injury.
Is Your Child Exhibiting These Symptoms?
Symptoms will vary depending on the severity of the injury as well as what part of the spinal cord was affected, but typical symptoms include:
- Inability to move
- Abnormal reflexes
- Breathing difficulties
- Bladder and bowel control problems
- Loss of touch sensations
- Pain around the affected area
Impact of Spinal Cord Injuries on Child Development
Spinal cord injuries in children can have profound and wide-ranging effects on development. The extent of these impacts often depends on the severity and location of the injury. Physically, a child may experience challenges with mobility, such as difficulty walking or a complete inability to move certain parts of the body. This can delay or alter typical motor skill milestones like crawling, standing, and walking.
Cognitive development can also be affected, especially if the spinal cord injury interferes with the child’s ability to interact with their environment. Exploratory play, which is crucial for learning, can be limited. Children learn a great deal through touch, movement, and interaction, all of which can be restricted by spinal cord injuries.
Social development may be impacted as well. Children with spinal cord injuries might find it more difficult to engage in common play activities, which can affect the development of social skills. They may face barriers that can lead to frustration, isolation, or social withdrawal, impacting their ability to form relationships.
While a strong support system, including medical professionals, therapists, and educators, can help mitigate these effects, paying for ongoing care, assistive devices, and mobile aids can be expensive. An experienced birth injury lawyer can guide families through the legal process to pursue compensation for these costs.
Legal Rights and Recourse for Families
If medical professionals failed to meet the standard of care expected during delivery, and it results in a spinal cord injury, families can file a lawsuit to get compensation for medical bills, ongoing care costs, pain and suffering, loss of future earning potential for their child, and other related damages. This suit would claim that the healthcare providers’ negligence directly caused the injury.
Before or during a lawsuit, there might be an opportunity to settle the case out of court. A settlement would involve the healthcare provider or their insurance company agreeing to pay a certain amount of compensation without the case going to trial. Don’t accept any settlement without speaking to an experienced birth injury lawyer, since once a settlement is accepted, there is no opportunity for future compensation. If your child will need lifelong treatment for their injury, ensure the compensation is enough to actually last a lifetime.
If a settlement cannot be reached, the case may go to trial, where a judge or jury will determine whether malpractice occurred and, if so, the amount of compensation that is appropriate. An experienced birth injury lawyer who is not afraid to go to trial is crucial to this process, to ensure that your rights are fully protected and that you receive the maximum amount of compensation possible.
Call Beam Legal Team Today for a Free Case Evaluation
Many children do not recover from spinal cord injuries and deal with symptoms for the rest of their lives. If you suspect that your child has been injured at birth due to the delivery doctor or another healthcare provider’s negligence, please contact the Chicago birth injury attorneys at Beam Legal Team as soon as possible. We are committed to fighting to protect the rights of your injured child and are not afraid to go to court to secure the maximum amount of compensation you are entitled to for your child’s care.
We have recovered hundreds of millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements for clients throughout the country. For more information on how we can help, contact our office today
Originally published September 25, 2015.