Problems with the spine -- the system of bones, called vertebrae, that start at the neck and continue down the back to the tailbone -- can affect children at any age. Errors in fetal development, congenital disorders, injuries or disease can all affect the way the spine grows. Spinal problems range from insignificant to crippling; see your child's pediatrician if you notice a problem with your child's ability to sit, stand or move, or if he develops new back or neck pain or weakness.
Normal Spine Development
The basic structure of the spine develops very early in pregnancy. The neural tube, which forms the brain and spinal cord, folds inward and closes completely by day 28 after conception, about two weeks after you would normally miss your first menstrual period. When your baby is born, his spine is C-shaped. The cervical and lumbar curves that give the spine its normal shape develop over the first year. Your baby can't crawl, sit or walk normally unless his lumbar spine develops properly.
Spinal Problems That Develop During Pregnancy
Neural tube defects develop very early in pregnancy, often before you even realize you're pregnant. For this reason, the March of Dimes suggests that all women of childbearing age take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, which reduces the risk of neural tube defects by as much as 70 percent. Spina bifida, the most common neural tube defect, affects the lower vertebrae of the spine. Symptoms of spina bifida can range from no obvious effects to complete paralysis. If your child has a visible opening in the spine, surgical repair will decrease the risk of infection but might not reverse spinal cord damage that occurred before birth. Scoliosis or kyphosis -- two types of abnormal spine curvature -- can also develop during pregnancy. Bracing, physical therapy and surgical repair help treat these conditions.
Childhood Disorders That Affect the Spine
Disorders that affect the nerves, muscles, tissue and ligaments that support and ennervate the spine can affect spinal development as your child grows. When the structures around the spine become weak, the spinal vertebrae can shift out of alignment, causing spinal deformities such as scoliosis or kyphosis. Treating cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophies or atrophy, connective tissue disorders and other neuromuscular disorders with bracing or physical therapy can help prevent permanent spinal damage. Infections, tumors or injuries to the spine during childhood from accidents or repeated trauma while playing sports can affect spinal development and cause deformities.
Symptoms of Spinal Problems
Back pain is the symptom you might associate with problems with the spine, but it's not the only symptom. Sometimes it's plain to see that your child's spine doesn't curve properly. In less severe conditions, you might notice that when he stands, one shoulder is higher than the other or that his head isn't centered. Your child might have an unusual gait or trouble breathing. Spinal abnormalities can worsen over time; talk to the pediatrician as soon as you notice a potential problem. X-rays and other imaging tests can help diagnose spinal abnormalities.