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Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

What's the Problem?

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) occurs as a result of trauma (a jolt or blow or penetrating injury) to the spine. Paralysis often results. Each year approximately 11,000 Americans sustain an SCI. In addition, an estimated 200,000 Americans currently live with a disability related to an SCI. The leading cause of SCI varies by age. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause among people younger than 65. Among people 65 and older, falls cause most SCIs.

Spinal cord injuries can have serious health consequences including death and paralysis. In addition to the initial disability of paralysis, persons with SCI often suffer from other health conditions (secondary conditions) that can make them sick or cause them to be hospitalized. Common secondary conditions are pressure sores, respiratory conditions, spasticity, and scoliosis.

Who's at Risk?

More than half of the people who sustain SCIs are 16 to 30 years old. Males are more likely than females to sustain an SCI and African Americans are at higher risk for SCI than whites.

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Can It Be Prevented?

Yes, measures can be taken to decrease the chance of experiencing an SCI by changing behavior to improve safety. The major causes of SCIs are motor vehicle crashes, falls, firearm violence, and sports/recreation activities. An example of taking safety precautions would be wearing a seat belt or using child passenger safety seats in motor vehicles. In the event of a crash, these measures can reduce the chance that someone will experience an SCI. See additional tip sheets on: motor vehicle accidents, adolescents and teens, men's health, sports and recreation-related injuries, teen driving, and violence and homicide among youth for more information on preventative behaviors that can reduce the chance of experiencing a spinal cord injury.

The Bottom Line

Spinal cord injury is a serious and life altering condition. Measures, such as protecting one's back and neck, should be taken to avoid spinal cord injury.

Case Example

For his fiftieth birthday, Jack and his lifelong friend Rob decide to celebrate by getting the motorcycles they dreamed of since they were ten. Their wives agree reluctantly on the condition that both men take the weeklong motorcycle licensure and safety class offered by their state. Both men participate in the course and graduate the following Saturday. Despite their training, when they hit the highway on Sunday they start to weave in and out of the heavy traffic. Their trip is cut short when Jack loses control of his motorcycle and crashes. Jack sustains a spinal cord injury and is paralyzed from the waist down. Jack and his family relocate to a nearby city for a year so that Jack can undergo intensive therapy and rehabilitation.

  • Page last reviewed: February 23, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 23, 2011
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