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What is Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury?


A traumatic spinal cord injury is an acquired injury that may affect the patient’s mobility, strength, and motor function. The Rick Hansen Institute, a non-profit dedicated to spinal cord injury research, estimates more than 86,000 Canadians are living with spinal cord injury, with approximately 4,300 new cases each year. About one-third of new cases are attributable to traumatic injury, such as what can occur during a motor vehicle accident, fall, or sports injury.

Spinal cord injuries are projected to rise within the next 15 years in Canada to a projected 121,000 injured patients by 2030.

Causes of Traumatic Spinal Cord Injuries

A traumatic spinal cord injury involves damage to the spinal cord. This may affect the spinal tissues, discs or other bones. Injury may occur when the spinal cord sustains:

  • cutting;
  • compression;
  • pulling;
  • twisting; or
  • any other movement that compromises the integrity and natural motion of the body’s structure.

Most traumatic spinal cord injuries are unintentional and occur as a result of accidents, though assault and gunshot wounds also can lead to injury. The most common causes of traumatic spinal cord injury:

  • Falls, such as trip and fall or slip and fall accidents. A study in The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgeryfound 43% of newly reported spinal cord injuries in Ontario were attributable to falls
  • Motor vehicle accidents. The same study also found car accidents to account for another 43% of newly diagnosed spinal cord injuries in those aged 40 or younger
  • Sports injuries. Sports that involve full contact between participants, like hockey, can lead to spinal cord or brain injuries.
  • Workplace accidents
  • Pedestrian or bicycle accidents.

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Even a minor accident or injury can cause severe trauma to the spinal cord if the patient’s spine is weakened by a medical condition such as osteoporosis or arthritis.

Determining the Extent of a Spinal Cord Injury

A suspected traumatic spinal cord injury demands immediate medical attention. Emergency personnel must attempt to stabilize the patient. Physicians and specialists can assess the extent of injury using a number of tools, including:

  • MRI
  • CT scan
  • Myelogram (a spinal X-ray that uses dye to detect points of injury)
  • Spinal X-rays
  • Somatosensory evoked potential testing

Such diagnostic tests are performed in conjunction with physical exams to determine the severity and extent of a traumatic spinal cord injury. A physician may use other cues — such as the patient’s reflexes and sensory response — to arrive at a diagnosis.

See also: Overview of Spinal Cord Trauma Symptoms

The Impact of a Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury

The impact of a traumatic spinal cord injury depends in large part on the location of the injury. An injury that occurs near the top of the spine will have a more widespread impact than an injury that occurs lower in the spinal cord. Effects of spinal cord injuries are present below the damaged area.

A patient may experience numbness or loss of movement in the arms, legs and/or trunk, depending on the nature of the injury. Effects also depend on if the injury is complete or incomplete. Potential complications include:

  • Paralysis
  • Loss of sensation in affected extremities
  • Increased risk of infection (of the lungs, skin, urinary tract, etc.)
  • Loss of control of the bladder/bowels
  • And more
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A patient may require the use of a wheelchair or similar assistive device. Early treatment may help mitigate the impact of an injury. Those with traumatic spinal cord injuries can pursue full and meaningful lives if provided the necessary therapeutic and medical resources.

See also: Advancements in Spinal Cord Injury Treatments

What to Do After a Spinal Cord Injury in Ontario

If you suspect you suffered a spinal cord injury — or suspect another person has suffered injury — seek medical care right away. Initial care is important to minimize damage to the spinal column.

These injuries can bring significant medical costs and require sufficient care. Spinal cord injuries can be complete or incomplete. A complete injury means that an individual is totally paralyzed below the line of injury, while an incomplete injury means that an individual retains some function below the injury. The effects of the injury and required costs may depend on the type of injury and extent of damage.

All of the bills and losses associated with a serious injury like this add up very quickly. If your accident was caused by the negligence or wrongdoing of another person, you may be able to sue for damages. Further, if you or a loved one suffered the injury in a motor vehicle accident, you may be able to recover Statutory Accident Benefits.

You or a family member may be eligible for Accident Benefits or other financial resources in the wake of an accident and spinal cord injury, depending on fault and the type of accident. Call Preszler Injury Lawyers today at 1-800-JUSTICE® for a free case evaluation.

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