Spinal Cord Injuries in the US

According to the Shepherd Center, a research and treatment hospital that focuses on spinal cord and related injuries, over 17,000 individuals sustain a spinal cord injury every year. While not as common as other types of injuries, damage to the spinal cord is nonetheless serious, painful, and may have long-term consequences. Further, many spinal cord injuries in the United States commonly occur from preventable trauma-related causes.

What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

A spinal cord injury is one that damages the vertebrae or nerve clusters in the spine. Damage can occur in the five broad areas of the spine, including the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccyx (also referred to as the coccygeal) regions.

“The consequences of a spinal cord injury depend on where the injury was sustained as well as the severity of damage,” said Attorney Jeff Shiver of Shiver Hamilton. “There are many different types of spinal cord injuries that each have their own symptoms. Further, there are different degrees in which the severity of a spinal cord injury may be classified.”

The location on the spine where damage is sustained may have an impact on how the body is affected. Damage to the cervical area, for example, may result in tetraplegia. Tetraplegia, also known as quadriplegia, is when the function and sensory ability of areas below the head are damaged. This includes the neck, arms, legs, and pelvis. Similarly, paraplegia describes injuries from the chest and below, and may occur when lower parts of the spine are damaged. Paraplegia typically affects the chest, abdomen, bladder, and legs. A notable difference between paraplegia and tetraplegia is that paraplegics retain the mobility and feeling of their arms.

Some common symptoms associated with a spinal cord injury include loss of bladder control, inability to maintain balance or coordination, and numbness in parts of the body. Additionally, intense pain or pressure in the neck, head, or back following a traumatic injury could be a sign of spinal cord damage.

Categories Describing the Level of Spinal Cord Damage

Damage to the spinal cord may be classified as either complete or incomplete. Complete damage refers to the nearly total loss of movement or sensory ability of the affected area. Conversely, incomplete damage to the spinal cord may result in the loss of some or most of the sensory or motor function of the affected area. As a result, an individual who sustained incomplete spinal cord damage may have a limited ability to feel or move the affected part of the body. Additionally, there are several categories of incomplete injuries that each have their own symptoms. This includes central cord, anterior cord, posterior cord, and Brown-Séquard syndromes.

Common Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries in the U.S.

Trauma-related accidents are the cause of most spinal cord injuries in the United States. Research published by the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC) indicates that automobile accidents account for nearly 40 percent of all spinal cord injuries in the country. Similarly, violence and fall-related accidents account for 13.5 percent and 31.5 percent of annual injuries, respectively. Other common causes of injuries include sports accidents and medical or surgical complications. Some non-trauma related causes of injury include multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and spinal tumors.

Long Term Effects of Spinal Cord Injuries

Data collected by the NSCISC indicates that a spinal cord injury may have a significant long-term effect on an individual’s life. For an individual who sustains and initially survives a spinal cord injury, the average life expectancy is 6 years lower when compared to an average adult. In severe cases of quadriplegia, the remaining years an individual is expected to live can decrease by half.

In addition to reductions in life expectancy, spinal cord damage can have a significant effect on the financial well-being of the individual who sustained the injury. The average cost to treat paraplegia in the United States in 2016 was $519,520 in the first year of treatment. Following the initial year of treatment, the average annual expenses incurred for medical treatment was nearly $70,000 annually.