A study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine finds that falls have become the leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the U.S.
The study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Neurotrauma, indicates that more can be done to protect people from suffering these debilitating and often deadly injuries.
In the study, researchers analyzed more than 43,000 adults treated in emergency rooms across the U.S. between 2007 and 2009. Across all ages, the number of spinal cord injuries attributed to falls increased during that period.
Falls represented 41.5 percent of all spinal cord injuries, while car accidents – traditionally the most common cause of these serious injuries – accounted for 35.5 percent. Among the oldest Americans, fall-related spinal cord injuries increased from 23.6 percent to 30 percent.
Why Have Falls Become a Leading Cause of Spinal Cord Injuries?
One reason why car accidents no longer are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries may be due to safety features in vehicles and greater traffic safety awareness. Due to air bags and seat belt laws, for instance, auto accidents may less frequently result in serious injuries.
In a press release issued by Johns Hopkins Medicine, Dr. Edward R. Hammond of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury states that the aging of the American population may be another reason why falls have become the primary cause of these injuries.
During the study period, spinal cord injuries among people ages 16 to 64 declined slightly, from 52.3 per one million in the population to 49.9 per million. However, among people ages 65 and older, the rate rose significantly, from 79.4 per million in 2007 to 87.7 per million in 2009.
The shift to older populations and falls as the leading cause of spinal cord injuries suggests that a broad prevention effort is needed.
Preventing Spinal Cord Injuries
Spinal cord injuries range in severity. For this study, the injuries identified were serious enough to send the patient to the hospital. Some resulted in temporary bruising, while others resulted in severed spinal cords, leading to paralysis and worse.
According to the National Institutes of Health, spinal cord injuries are either classified as complete or incomplete.
A complete spinal cord injury indicates the cord cannot send signals through the nerves past the point of the injury. In other words, you become paralyzed below that point. Incomplete spinal injuries, on the other hand, result in at least some sensation and movement below the injury site.
While improvements in treatments and rehabilitation practices have led to improved outcomes, they have also led to increased costs in recent years.
The cost of caring for someone with a spinal cord injury is estimated to range from $1 million to $5 million, depending on the severity of the injury and the age of the victim.
The NIH is leading a massive campaign to reduce the occurrence of traumatic brain injuries – specifically among the elderly – and is focusing on fall prevention. This campaign could ultimately have a positive impact on reducing the occurrence of spinal cord injuries due to falls as well.