Spinal injuries are some of the most significant types of injuries in the medical field. Roughly 12,500 Americans suffer from spinal cord injuries each year. Not only is there a prolonged recovery involved with these injuries, but patients must also face significant medical bills associated with treatment that could include surgery.
Some research suggests that just one hospitalization for a spinal cord injury could average $140,000 and the medical expenses in the first year alone could be close to $200,000. Over a lifetime, the average medical cost is over $1.35 million for someone who is rendered a quadriplegic, and just about half of these injuries are covered by health insurance.
What is a Spinal Cord Injury?
A spinal cord injury is a serious event that happens when there is damage to a bundle of nerves that are housed within the spinal column. These are the nerves that carry vital messages between the body and brain, so damage can lead to catastrophic consequences.
A severe spinal cord injury can leave a victim paralyzed in their body’s lower region (paraplegic) or in all four extremities (quadriplegic). Because the spinal cord is responsible for essential bodily functions such as body temperature, breathing, bladder control, and sexual functioning, an accident victim can suffer from a wide range of serious and permanent health problems from one of these injuries.
Some Disturbing Facts About Spinal Cord Injuries
While every spinal cord injury is unique, there are some common risk factors and effects that catch many accident victims by surprise. Although anyone can fall victim to one of these injuries, statistics show that men have a greater chance of suffering from a spinal cord injury than women. In fact, 82% of spinal cord injuries in the U.S. occur in males ages 16 to 30.
The leading cause of death among spinal cord injury victims is respiratory failure. This is because a person with one of these severe injuries may not be able to effectively regulate their breathing. They may also have trouble coughing and clearing phlegm.
Statistics show that somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000 individuals in the United States are living with some type of spinal cord injury. In addition, there are approximately 11,000 new cases of SCI each year, although some estimates put this figure at as high as 17,500 new cases annually, not including those who are killed as a result of their injury. The majority of spinal cord injuries happen to individuals between the ages of 16 and 30, and more than 8 out of 10 spinal injury survivors are men.
Spinal Cord Injuries – What are the Common Causes?
Most spinal cord injuries result from a blow to the spine or other traumatic accident. According to reports from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, the most frequent causes of a spinal cord injury include:
- Motor Vehicle Accidents. The number one cause of injuries to the spinal cord is car and truck accidents, which accounts for 42.1% of these injuries.
- Falls. Falling from nearly any height can lead to a serious spinal cord injury and falls account for 26.7% of these cases. If the fall occurred at work, the victim could have a worker’s compensation case.
- Violent Acts. Acts of violence, such as stab and gunshot wounds are another leading cause of spinal cord injuries, making up 15.1% of the total.
- Recreation and Sports Activities. 6% of spinal cord injuries are the result of sports and recreational activities. This might involve diving into shallow water, landing on the head or neck while playing contact sports such as football, or falling while involved in another sport such as skiing or horseback riding.
A spinal cord injury can also result from an error that occurs during a surgical procedure involving the neck or back. In a case where an injury like this could have been avoided, the victim may have a medical malpractice case.
Some injuries to the spinal cord may appear to be minor at the onset, but if left untreated they can lead to impairment and progressive damage. A qualified medical examination and testing can identify these injuries and the need for further care.
Spinal Cord Injuries have Varying Degrees of Severity
Spinal injuries affect each individual uniquely, but the injury is divided into two general categories; complete SCI and incomplete SCI. Complete SCI is a total loss of motor function and feeling in the areas of the body that are affected. Incomplete SCI means that you retain partial motor function and feeling in these areas. Symptoms of incomplete SCI can be minor, moderate, or severe, depending on what areas of the spinal cord were damaged.
Do Individuals with a Spinal Injury ever improve?
Yes. Those who suffer a spinal cord injury have symptoms that are very alarming, and they may feel like the symptoms will last a lifetime. In some cases, that is true. However, in other cases, it is possible to make a full recovery from the injury. The key is to be patient and follow the recommendations of your medical team. At present, there is no cure available for spinal cord injuries. However, there is ongoing research in this area, and there have been many developments in the lab. Many of the promising medical developments have managed to reduce damage at the time of the injury. A spinal cord injury often leads to inflammation in the spinal cord. This may lead to changes in almost every bodily system. The swelling begins to decrease after days or weeks, and many individuals regain some functioning. If there are many injuries, particularly incomplete ones, the patient may regain some function as late as 18 months after sustaining the injury. In rare instances, spinal cord injury patients will regain some function years after they sustained the injury. Only a small percentage of spinal cord injury patients recover all functions.
Can Spinal Cord Injuries Cause Brain Damage?
In 2014, the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UM SOM) researchers determined that spinal cord injuries (SCI) can lead to extensive and sustained brain swelling that causes progressive nerve cell loss, with related cognitive issues and depression.
The research, which has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience and Cell Cycle, shows intricate links between SCI and brain function loss. This suggests potential treatment can prevent such effects.
The researchers cite animal studies that have indicated that traumatic brain injury, even mild repeated injury, can cause progressive brain tissue damage, a decline in cognitive abilities, and extensive brain swelling. However, minimal research has gone into evaluating whether these changes occur after SCIs.
The researchers state that their studies are the first to indicate that isolated spinal cord injury (SCI) can lead to progressive brain cell loss in vital areas of the brain. He further highlights that brain degeneration was shown in various experimental models and animal studies.
On top of this, the team has identified specific molecular mechanisms responsible for these pathological modifications and shown that certain medications can prevent such injuries, including swelling, loss of brain cells, cognitive decline, and depressive behaviors following the injury.
According to UM SOM Dean Dr. E. Albert Reece, there is a crucial and significant increase in their understanding of the overall effects of SCIs. The relationship between spinal injuries and brain function is more apparent now. Dr. Reece believes that future research in this area will offer the hope of new treatment approaches for this catastrophic trauma, and maybe even reverse its impact on the brain.
The Effect of SCIs on the Body
Spinal cord injuries can affect various bodily functions, including:
Spinal Cord Reflexes
In a healthy human body, messages are sent from the brain through the spinal cord to various areas of the body, which engenders movement. If the spinal cord sustains injuries, the messages from the brain cannot be transmitted. The spinal nerves that lie below the level of the injury receive signals. However, they are unable to go up the spinal tracts to the brain.
An SCI might weaken the muscles necessary for breathing and coughing. Coughing is vital to clear the lungs of bacteria and secretions. An individual who has a weak cough or is unable to clear secretions from their lungs are at a greater risk of developing an infection, such as pneumonia. A patient may require support breathing with a ventilator, for a brief time or forever if the SCI is in the neck area (cervical).
Neurogenic Shock (Low Heart Rate and Low Blood Pressure)
The blood pressure and heart rate are usually controlled by the brain. The brain sends signals through the spinal court to shrink blood vessels and raise the heart rate to maintain normal blood pressure and heart rate. However, when these messages cannot be transmitted, an individual can experience low blood pressure and low heart rate.
Spinal shock refers to the temporary loss of all spinal cord reflexes below the level of the injury. This condition could extend up to days and even weeks. When spinal shock ends, spasticity or stiffness occurs below the level that the spinal cord sustained the injury. There is no way to prevent or treat spinal shock, and it must resolve by itself.
Swallowing may become harder for patients with higher cervical injuries. In these types of cases, an NG tube may become necessary for nutrition and administering drugs. The tube passes from the nose into the stomach, and liquid formula will be given either on an ongoing basis or multiple times daily.
An SCI may cause changes in the signals between your bladder and brain. When the bladder gets full in healthy individuals, nerves in the bladder transmit a message through the spinal cord indicating the need to pee (urinate). After an injury, the message to the brain may be lost. Also, the presence of spinal shock leads to a non-existent bladder tone.
After a spinal injury, a person may experience changes in bowel. A patient may experience diarrhea or constipation. To rectify this condition, the injury victim may require a bowel training program, including diet, meds, and digital stimulation. Digital stimulation refers to touching inside the rectum to enable the bowels to move. While developing a bowel training program is time-consuming, it can be successful.
It Takes Time to Recover
Recovery from a spinal cord injury will not happen overnight. Your doctor may recommend various types of treatment, as well as physical therapy and in the more severe cases, surgery. Most patients will want to try nonsurgical approaches first, with surgery as a last resort. The key to a successful recovery is early treatment and following your doctor’s orders. For example, if physical therapy is part of your rehabilitation, make every effort to keep your therapy appointments and follow through on the exercises your therapist gives you.
Home and Vehicle Modifications may be Required
Those who suffer a moderate to severe SCI may have to be in a wheelchair, at least for the time being. This might require some modifications to your home to help accommodate your condition. For example, you might need to move some furniture around to create wider paths for your wheelchair to get through. You may also need a stairlift installed to move up and down stairs. If your condition turns out to be permanent, you may also need to consider structural changes to your home, such as widening hallways and doorways. Your vehicle may also require some specialized upgrades to address your needs.
Can You Sue for a Spinal Injury?
If your spinal cord injury was the result of negligence or a defective product, you have the right to make a claim for damages. If another person, or entity, was at fault in creating your circumstances, you should not have to bear the financial and emotional burden of your losses. Not only is the medical care costly for a spinal cord injury, but you will also likely have lost wages, permanent impairment, and pain and suffering. Spinal cord injury lawsuits can be complex, so it’s best if you speak with a lawyer who specializes in this type of litigation.
Speak with a San Diego Catastrophic Injury Lawyer About Your Case
If a spinal cord injury has affected you or a loved one due to the negligent or careless act of another party, you may face catastrophic results. After you seek immediate medical attention for the injury, it’s time to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney about your options.
The legal team at Garmo & Garmo, LLP has the skill, experience, and compassion necessary to help you and your loved ones through this difficult time, and to fight for the compensation you need and deserve. We will investigate your case, explain your rights, and guide you through the process as we pursue the best possible outcome for your case. Contact our office now at (619) 441-2500 or online to schedule a free consultation.