After nine months of anticipation, the birth of a baby is a time of great excitement. However, after a completely uneventful pregnancy, things can go horribly wrong at the time of delivery. Obstetricians sometimes have to make a close call. Delaying the delivery could result in hypoxia, a condition in which the infant’s brain is deprived of oxygen. Trying to quickly deliver the baby may put the child at risk of traumatic injury.


Childbirth-Related Spinal Cord Injury

Injuries to an infant’s spinal cord during delivery can have devastating consequences, and are usually the result of blunt force trauma from the obstetrician’s hands, forceps, or vacuum, applied to ease the baby’s passage through the birth canal. The spinal cord may be bruised, partially torn, or completely transected. Additionally, medical conditions affecting the brain and nervous system can injure the spinal cord.

Some babies have a condition called spina bifida. In such infants, the vertebrae in the spine are incompletely fused, exposing the nerves to the surface. If spina bifida remains undiagnosed, a medical professional may inadvertently damage these raw nerves during delivery.

If the obstetrician or labor and delivery team somehow cause or fail to prevent a spinal cord injury, their negligence could be the basis for a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Causes and Consequences of Infant Spinal Cord Injuries

Boston Children’s Hospital reports that about 60-75 percent of spinal cord injuries in infants occur in the upper spine or neck. The upper and lower back each account for approximately 20 percent of these injuries, which is important because the higher the level of damage in the spine, the more serious the consequences.

The vertebrae and their surrounding muscles and ligaments protect the spinal cord from the stresses of a normal birth. A traumatic labor and delivery, however, can place undue stress on the spinal column, resulting in damage. For example, traction placed on an infant’s trunk during a difficult breech delivery can damage the spinal axis. If the infant’s head becomes hyperextended (similar to a star gazing position), this can result in spinal cord injuries and permanent damage as well.

Infants with spinal cord injuries sustained during delivery exhibit many different symptoms depending on the severity of the damage and the level of the cord where the injury has occurred, the more common of which are:

  • Lack of movement
  • Loss of touch sensation
  • Bowel and bladder problems
  • Spasms and abnormal reflexes
  • Stinging nerve pain
  • Weakness

Long-term effects may include paralysis and intellectual disability. In very severe cases, spinal cord injuries can result in the death of the infant.

Complete and Incomplete Spinal Cord Damage

According to the National Institutes of Health, the prognosis or likely course of an infant with spinal cord damage depends on whether the injury is complete or incomplete. Some sensation and movement below the area of the injury are preserved in infants with incomplete injuries. On the other hand, complete injuries are associated with paralysis and a complete lack of sensation and motor function below the level of the injury.

If these babies survive, they are frequently left with lifelong complications including increased susceptibility to heart and lung problems and dysfunction of the bowel and bladder.

Matthew Curtis

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Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a senior shareholder and member of the Board of Directors at Sommers Schwartz, P.C. For the past 30 years, he has successfully litigated complex personal injury and medical malpractice cases throughout Michigan, and across the United States.