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Spinal Cord Injury Statistics: Understanding Potential Outcomes

nurse explaining spinal cord injury recovery statistics to help patient understand that recovery is possible

Having awareness of the latest spinal cord injury statistics may help you develop a better understanding of recovery outcomes.

However, it’s also important to remember that every spinal cord injury and its recovery are unique. Many factors play a role in determining recovery outlook after SCI, so it’s important to take an individualized approach to rehabilitation.

To help you get a general idea of what to expect following a spinal cord injury, this article will discuss some of the most up-to-date spinal cord injury statistics, including:

The Latest Spinal Cord Injury Statistics

Every year, the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center releases an annual statistical report with the most recent spinal cord injury statistics.

Below, we’ll go over some of the most interesting findings in the 2020 report.

How common are spinal cord injuries?

It’s estimated that about 296,000 people in the United States are living with a spinal cord injury. Of this population, about 78% of spinal cord injury cases occur in males while the remaining 22% occur in females.

According to this sample of 34,733 individuals, the average age at injury was 35.8 years old. Statistics also show that the highest frequency of spinal cord injuries occurred between 17-25 years of age.

What are the most common causes of spinal cord injuries?

most common causes of SCI according to 2020 statistics report

Any blow to the spinal column can cause a traumatic spinal cord injury.

The most common causes of SCI in this sample of 34,683 include:

  • Auto accidents (32%)
  • Falls (23.1%)
  • Gunshot wounds (15.2%)
  • Motorcycle accidents (6.1%)
  • Diving (5.7%)

Likewise, spinal cord injuries can also be caused by surgical complications or gradual wear and tear from increasing age. When a spinal cord injury is not caused by an outside force exerting pressure on the spinal cord, it is referred to as a nontraumatic spinal cord injury.

What are the most common effects of spinal cord injury?

The most common effects of a spinal cord injury are impaired motor control and sensation. The spinal cord is the passageway that connects sensory and motor nerve signals transmitted between the brain and muscles. Following a spinal cord injury, those signals may not be able to pass through the damage, resulting in loss of motor control and sensation.

Depending on the severity and location of the spinal cord injury, the outcomes of SCI can vary from mild to severe. Additionally, individuals may experience a variety of secondary effects of spinal cord injury. These are complications that arise as a result of impaired motor control and sensation.

Some of the most common secondary complications of SCI include:

What determines recovery outlook after spinal cord injury?

The severity of a spinal cord lesion significantly affects recovery outlook. Spinal cord injuries are often classified into complete or incomplete injuries.

complete v incomplete spinal cord injury statistics

An incomplete SCI refers to a spinal cord lesion that partially damages the spinal cord and does not affect all connections between the brain and areas below the level of injury. In contrast, a complete SCI refers to a lesion that cuts all the way across the spinal cord. As a result, no connections between the brain and areas below the level of injury exist.

Because damaged neurons in the spinal cord are not capable of regeneration, spinal cord injury recovery heavily depends on connections between the brain and areas below the level of injury unaffected by SCI to facilitate adaptive changes.

According to data gathered since 2015, 67.1% of spinal cord injuries are incomplete while 32.3% are complete.

Fortunately, the majority of individuals with spinal cord injuries experience some form of functional recovery. While rehabilitation for incomplete spinal cord injuries will primarily focus on promoting adaptive changes in the spinal cord, rehabilitation for complete spinal cord injuries will focus on teaching individuals how to be as functional and independent as possible through compensatory techniques.

What is the most common level of injury?

what is the most common level of spinal cord injury

The location of a spinal cord injury helps determine which functions may be affected.

The spinal cord is a long collection of nerves that relays sensory and motor signals between the brain and body. It is split into 31 levels based on the number of nerve pairs branching out. At each level, nerves branch out and connect to different muscles and sensory tissues throughout the body.

Because signals cannot pass through spinal cord damage, motor signals from the brain cannot reach muscles innervated below the level of injury. As a result, those regions of the body experience weakness or paralysis.  Likewise, sensory stimuli from areas of the body below the level of injury cannot reach the brain, resulting in loss of sensation.

According to the spinal cord injury annual report, the statistics for the most common levels of injury are:

  • C4 (15.5%)
  • C5 (15%)
  • C6 (10%)

These are all high-level spinal cord injuries caused by injury to the neck. They affect motor control and sensation in both the upper and lower portions of the body. However, if an individual has a milder (incomplete) spinal cord lesion, they may still be able to feel sensation or control movements in some areas below their level of injury.

What percentage of people with spinal cord injuries can work?

Some individuals are able to return back to work after spinal cord injury. However, it’s important that you return to work only when you feel ready to do so. Individuals should be educated about their workplace rights, make sure they get the appropriate accommodations, and know how to manage complications like urinary incontinence to minimize the risk of accidents at work.

The following statistics show occupational status 1 year after SCI (based on a sample of 26,484 people):

  • 12.7% returned to work
  • 1.6% were homemakers
  • 0.1% were receiving on-the-job training
  • 14.4% were students
  • 53.5% were unemployed
  • 8.3% were retired

Statistics also show that as time increases, the percentage of unemployed decreases. Within a sample of 15,065 people, by 5 years after initial injury, 20.9% of individuals had returned to work.

Most common causes of death after SCI?

Higher-level spinal cord injuries (C5 and up) can disrupt lung capacity and breathing. The C3-5 segments of the spinal cord innervate the diaphragm, which is essential for inhaling and exhaling. When diaphragm function is impaired, the lungs can’t expand as much, which makes it challenging to breathe and cough. As a result, respiratory complications are the most common cause of death in spinal cord injury patients.

According to this sample of 16,823 deaths, the leading causes of mortality in individuals with SCI include:

  • diseases of the respiratory system (21.4%)
  • heart disease (18.7%)
  • infective/ parasitic diseases (12%)
  • abnormal cell growths (10.8%)

Lack of motor control and sensation following SCI can increase one’s risk of developing chronic conditions. By making healthy lifestyle choices such as eating a healthy diet, finding ways to be more physically active, and quitting smoking, individuals can significantly improve their outcomes.

How long does recovery after SCI take?

It’s a commonly held belief that patients with spinal cord injuries only have up to a year to recover and after that, they’re as good as they’re ever going to get. However, that’s not true, and many SCI patients continue to recover years following their injury.

Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to make adaptive changes based on our behaviors. The reason why the most significant functional recovery is typically observed early after an SCI is because the central nervous system experiences a heightened state of plasticity the first 6 months or so following a spinal cord injury.

However, that does not mean neuroplasticity goes away. As long as you have an incomplete spinal cord injury and continue to consistently practice affected movements, you’ll stimulate the spinal cord and reinforce demand for those functions. While movements may feel uncomfortable or weak at the beginning, repetitive practice will help rewire and strengthen the neural connections for those functions, and gradually, they will feel more comfortable.

Spinal Cord Injury Statistics: Key Takeaways

Every spinal cord injury and its recovery are unique, so it’s essential to take the statistics in this article with a grain of salt. What is definite, however, is that the spinal cord is capable of making adaptive changes and improvements are possible.

We hope this article helped you understand that SCIs can affect anyone at any age, and that many people are able to recover after injury and have a high quality of life. Good luck!

featured image: iStock/monkeybusinessimages

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