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Picture: Spinal Column

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI): Fact Sheet 

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is an important contributing factor to morbidity and mortality in the United States.


Spinal cord injury may occur following damage to the spinal column. The spinal column comprises 31 bones called vertebrae: 7 cervical vertebrae (neck), 12 thoracic vertebrae (upper and middle back), 5 lumbar vertebrae (lower back), 5 sacral vertebrae (sacrum), and 2 fused coccygeal vertebrae (coccyx).

Each vertebra comprises a vertebral body and a vertebral arch, which form an enclosed opening (or vertebral foramen). The vertebrae are stacked on top of each other, aligning the vertebral foramen and forming the spinal column.

Picture: lumbar vertebrate  Picture: vertebrate with spinal cord

The spinal cord, the central bundle of nerves extending from the brain and branching peripherally, is responsible for transmitting signals between the brain and the rest of the body. The spinal cord is located within the spinal column. Any damage to the spinal column could affect the spinal cord and result in temporary or permanent neurologic impairments.


  • About 200,000 people are currently living with SCI in the United States.2,14
  • Annually, 15 to 40 new cases per million people—or 12,000 to 20,000 new patients—are estimated to occur.2,3,9,11
  • Alcohol has been found to play a major factor in 25% of spinal cord injuries.1

Long-term Complications

Traumatic injury to the spinal cord can result in neurologic impairments in any body system controlled by the affected nerves, including musculoskeletal (resulting in incomplete or complete paraplegia or tetraplegia9), respiratory,11,13 urinary,7,10,11,13 or gastrointestinal7,10,11,13.  Long-term complications from SCI also include any psychological side effects, such as depression and anxiety 5,7.

Causes Pie Chart: 46% motor vehicle accidents, 22% falls, 16% violence, 12% sport


  • Average annual medical cost: $15,000–$30,000 per year6
  • Estimated lifetime cost: $500,000–more than $3 million, depending on injury severity9,11


  • Motor vehicle accidents: 46% 1,2,3,8,9,11
    • Use of a seatbelt can reduce the odds of a spinal cord injury by 60%4,16
    • Use of a seatbelt and airbag combined can reduce the odds of injury by 80%4
  • Falls: 22%1,2,3,8,9,11
  • Violence: 16%1,2,8,9,11
  • Sports: 12%1,2,9,11

DemographicsEstimated SCI Racial/Ethnic Distribution: 65% White, 25% African American, 8% Hispanic, 2% Other

  • Males account for 80% of spinal cord injury patients.1,2,8,9,11,14,15
    • Most new SCI cases occur in persons younger than 30 years old;2,3 an estimated 50%–70% occur in those aged 15–35 years.2
  • Estimated racial/ethnic distribution:
    • White: 65%9,14
    • African American: 25%9,14
    • Hispanic: 8%9
    • Other: 2%9,14



  1. Beers, MH, Kaplan, JL, editors. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. 18th ed. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp; 2006.
  2. Bernhard M, Gries A, Kremer P, Böttiger BW. Spinal cord injury (SCI) – prehospital management. Resuscitation 2005 August;66(2):127–39.
  3. Burke DA, Linden RD, Zhang YP, Maiste AC, Shields CB. Incidence rates and populations at risk for spinal cord injury: a regional study. Spinal Cord 2001 May;39(5):274–8.
  4. Clayton B, MacLennan PA, McGwinn Jr. G, Rue III LW, Kirkpatrick JS. Cervical spine injury and restraint system use in motor vehicle collisions. Spine 2004 February;29(4):386–9.
  5. Craig A, Tran Y, Middleton J. Psychological morbidity and spinal cord injury: a systematic review. Spinal Cord 2009;47:108–14.
  6. French DD, Campbell RR, Sabharwal S, Nelson AL, Palacios PA, Gavin-Dreschnack D. Health care costs for patients with chronic spinal cord injury in the Veterans Health Administration. Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine 2007;30(5):477–81.
  7. Hitzig SL, Tomack M, Campbell KA, McGillivray CE, Boschen KA, Richards K, Craven BC. Secondary health complications in aging Canadian spinal cord injury sample. American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2008 July;87(7):545–55.
  8. Jackson AB, Dijkers M, DeVivo MJ, Poczatek RB. A demographic profile of new traumatic spinal cord injuries: change and stability over 30 years. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2004 November;85(11):1740–8.
  9. National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC). [cited 2010 Sept 15].
  10. Savic G, Short DJ, Weitzenkamp D, Charlifue S, Gardner BP. Hospital readmissions in people with chronic spinal cord injury. Spinal Cord 2000;38(6):371–7.
  11. Sekhon LHS, Fehlings MG. Epidemiology, demographics, and pathophysiology of acute spinal cord injury. Spine 2001 December;26(245):S2–S12.
  12. Siddall PJ, McCleland JM, Rutkowski SB, Cousins MJ. A longitudinal study of the prevalence and characteristics of pain in the first 5 years following spinal cord injury. Pain 2003 June;103(3):249–57.
  13. Spinal cord injury: emerging concepts. [cited 2010 Sept 14].
  14. Spinal Cord Injury Information Network [updated 2008; cited 2010 Sept 15].
  15. Strauss D, DeVivo MJ, Shavelle R. Long-term mortality risk after spinal cord injury. Journal of Insurance Medicine 2000;32:11–6.
  16. Thompson WL, Steill IG, Clement CM, Brison RJ. Association of injury mechanism with the risk of cervical spine fractures. Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine 2009;11(1):14–22.
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