Let’s hope you’re never in a situation where you witness a possible spinal cord injury in a child. But if it does happen, here are the two things you need to know:
One of the most important things you can do for the child is get prompt, qualified medical attention. If your phone is available, use it to call 911. If not, make sure someone else is calling 911.
The other important action you can take is to keep the child still. Many people naturally reach out to pick up an injured child. But in the case of a potential spinal cord injury, moving the child’s head or neck could be dangerous. Trained medical professionals can immobilize the child, preventing her from moving in order to protect the spinal cord.
This second point is crucial—and deceptively difficult. Columbia Pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Anderson recently spoke to his peers at a panel on spinal cord injury. He made a striking point on an issue that’s out of neurosurgeons’ hands.
Even following a potentially serious trauma like a car crash, a fall from 10 feet or more, or a sports injury involving the neck, many children are not immobilized before reaching the hospital. He cited a study of children admitted to the hospital after a trauma that found:
- 21 percent of children between 8 and 15 were not adequately immobilized
- 36 percent of children between 2 and 7 were not adequately immobilized
- 72 percent of children under 2 were not immobilized correctly
Immobilization is the first step in managing a potential spinal cord injury. That’s because, like any other tissue, the spinal cord doesn’t have to be completely torn to be injured.
Bruising and swelling can also injure the spinal cord, reducing its function. Keeping the child still may prevent this additional damage, potentially protecting the spinal cord.
Parents, guardians and bystanders don’t have to determine whether trauma has affected a child’s spinal cord. First responders and Emergency Department medical personnel are specially trained to evaluate such situations.
If necessary, these professionals call upon neurosurgeons like Dr. Anderson for further evaluation and treatment. But parents, guardians, or bystanders must first err on the side of caution, keeping the child still and calling for prompt medical help when there may be an injury.
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