A car crash that results in spinal cord trauma is a worst case scenario. Unlike bruises and lacerations, or even broken bones, a spinal cord injury is usually permanent. Neither time nor surgery can completely reverse the damage.
Depending on the injury site and severity, people with spinal cord damage may require lifelong care, perhaps 24-hour nursing. This creates hardships not only for the patient but for the loved ones who are providing assistance and coping with new realities of family life.
What part of the spine was injured?
The spinal cord is only about 18 inches long about 1 centimeter thick. It is encased by 33 vertebrae, divided into sections – cervical (neck), thoracic (torso), lumbar (lower back) and sacral (tailbone). The location of the spinal cord injury is the greatest factor in the extent of damage – the higher on the spine the more severe the potential impact on function and sensation.
Injuries are commonly described as complete or incomplete; complete means no function below that level, while an incomplete injury means the person may retain some feeling or partial function.
- A person with an injury at C3 (third vertebrae of the neck) or above typically requires a ventilator. Just one vertebrae lower, at C4, the person may be able to breathe on their own, but probably is paralyzed in all four limbs. A C5 injury might mean that the personal can move their arm down to the wrist, though their hand would be paralyzed. A C6 injury might allow limited use of the hand. More than half of spinal cord injuries are cervical (C1 to C6).
- A person with an upper thoracic injury (T1 to T8) might retain use of their hands and arms but suffer from loss of function in the trunk and legs. A lower thoracic injury (T9 to T12) might mean control of their trunk and abdominal muscles but not the legs. About one-third of spinal cord injuries are thoracic.
- Injuries to the lumbar or sacral region of the spine may range from paralysis of the legs to nerve damage, sexual dysfunction and disruption of internal organs.
Who suffers spinal cord injuries?
Anyone can suffer spinal cord trauma, but more than one-third of paralyzing spinal cord injuries are caused by motor vehicle crashes. Another one-fourth are caused by falls. Most of the remainder are caused by sports/recreation injuries (such as diving accidents) and acts of violence (such as shootings).
One common thread is that 82 percent of spinal cord injuries happen to males between the ages of 16 and 30. They are simply engaged in more risky behaviors than children, older men or their female counterparts. It takes a great toll on the entire family when a young man in his prime becomes paraplegic or quadriplegic.
Living with a spinal cord injury
About 1.2 million Americans live with some paralysis from spinal cord damage, according to the Christopher Reeve Foundation. (Reeve, best known for his movie role as Superman, suffered a C2 spinal injury in a horse riding accident).
Aside from the loss of sensation and movement, spinal injuries can have a cascading effect on other body systems. The leading cause of death for those with spinal cord injury is pneumonia and respiratory diseases, due to diminished posture and lung function. Non-ischemic heart disease is the second leading cause of death. The third leading cause is external events -- chiefly suicide, assisted suicide or homicide – stemming from the suffering, economic hardships and diminished quality of life.
Covering the significant needs
Despite the health challenges, many people live long and meaningful lives after a spinal cord injury. Access to quality medical and psychological care is key, as well as adaptive technologies. Many families do not have the insurance coverage or other financial means to pay for such resources.
If the accident or injury was caused by someone’s negligence – a car driver or property owner, for example – a personal injury lawsuit may pursue damages to cover these lifelong needs, plus compensation for a lifetime of lost earnings. There are many support groups and aid organizations for individuals and families coping with a spinal cord injury.