This article was previously published on SpinalCord.com by Zawn Villines.
Though about 12,500 people survive spinal cord injuries each year, few people learn much about these catastrophic injuries until they are injured or must care for an injured loved one.
Most spinal cord injuries are preventable, and knowing the causes of these injuries can help you avoid becoming a victim. And if you or someone you love already deal with the frustration and pain of a spinal cord injury, knowing the most common sources of these injuries can help you feel a bit less alone.
Each year, the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama-Birmingham compiles an assortment of statistics on spinal cord injuries. It’s interesting to note that, in almost all category of injuries, men are more likely to be injured than women.
Men account for more than 80% of SCI victims, and the reason for this is quite clear: men are more likely to take risks and play sports that cause SCI. Spinal cord injuries are especially prevalent among younger men, who may be more prone to playing dangerous sports or engaging in risky activities such as high-speed driving.
In 2014, the latest year for which statistics are available, the 10 leading causes of spinal cord injuries, and their percentage of the total number of injuries, were as follows.
Leading Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries, Explained
Car accidents are a leading cause of death nationwide, and people under the age of 34 are more likely to die in car accidents than any other single cause. Nationwide, car accidents claim more than 32,000 lives annually. Unsurprisingly, then, car accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for 7,205 (29.3%) male injuries and 2,402 (48.3%) female injuries in 2014.
Find out what to do after a car accident.
You don’t have to be elderly or infirm to suffer a fall. A misplaced step as you navigate stairs, a fight near a flight of stairs, or even a medical event, such as a seizure or fainting, can all lead to catastrophic falls. Such falls were the second-leading cause of SCI in 2014, accounting for 5,406 (22%) male injuries and 1,262 (21.5%) female injuries.
Gunshot wounds can quickly destroy a body, and even a grazing by a bullet can sever or compress the spinal cord. Gun-related injuries accounted for 4,163 (16.9%) male SCIs in 2014, and 572 (9.1%) female injuries.
Propelling head first into the water is an inherently dangerous activity. If the water is too shallow, the diver inexperienced, or there are objects or people in the diver’s way, the injuries can be immediate and catastrophic. 1,718 (7%) men suffered spinal cord injuries due to diving accidents in 2014, with 122 (2.1%) female divers experiencing SCI.
Though motorcyclists account for a fraction of motorists on the road, the lack of external protection means that even minor motorcycle collisions can be deadly. In 2014, 1,695 (6.9%) men suffered spinal cord injuries while on motorcycles, with a mere 145 (2.5%) women experiencing such injuries.
You might not think much about falling objects in your daily life, but collisions with such objects can produce lifelong injuries. Construction sites, falling rock, and even large icicles or hail can damage the brain and spine, particularly when victims are hit at high speeds or at particularly dangerous angles.
Those in industries where falling objects are common are especially vulnerable; this is why construction hats and similar safety gear factor so prominently in the prevention of spinal cord injuries. 822 men (3.3%) and 37 women (.6%) experienced spinal cord injuries due to falling objects in 2014.
Medical and Surgical Complications
Doctors, pharmacists, and other medical experts are on the front lines of the fight against spinal cord injuries. These providers can help you recover from even the most severe injuries, but there is also a dark side to medical care. Medical errors are frighteningly common, killing as many as 440,000 people each year. Even when such errors are not fatal, they can cause catastrophic spinal cord injuries.
Likewise, surgical complications, including infections, can compress the spinal cord. Choosing the right doctor, following his or her post-surgical care advice, reading provider reviews, and carefully monitoring any unusual symptoms can all help you avoid a medically induced SCI. 537 (2.2%) men suffered spinal cord injuries due to medical complications in 2014.
Among women, the numbers were similar, with 298 women experiencing such injuries. But because women are less likely than men to experience traumatic spinal cord injuries, medically induced SCI accounts for a higher proportion (5.1%) of female SCI than male SCI. Among women, medically induced SCIs are the fourth-leading cause of such injuries.
Aggressive, distracted, and speeding motorists all contribute to a dangerous walking climate. It’s not just motorists who put people at risk, though. Ample research suggests that pedestrians are often distracted by phones and other devices, and many such pedestrians are in denial about the extent of their distraction. In 2014, 357 (1.5%) men suffered pedestrian-related spinal cord injuries, with 131 women (2.2%) meeting a similar fate.
Bicycle accidents change lives, especially when the cyclist collides with a car, hits a large object, or is not wearing a helmet. Helmets—even if you are only cycling in your own driveway, and even though you might not like the way helmets look—save lives. Over time, fatal bicycle accidents have generally declined, suggesting that helmet laws are working to keep cyclists safe. Nevertheless, 409 men (1.7%) and 49 women (.8%) suffered bicycling-related spinal cord injuries in 2014.
Person-to-person contact injuries are a cause of spinal cord injuries that, as the name implies, result from contact with another person. In most cases, these injuries are the result of violent altercations, such as when one person pushes another into a heavy object. 234 men (1%) and 66 women (1.1%) suffer spinal cord injuries due to such contact each year.
Other SCI Injury Sources
Though the above-mentioned sources account for the overwhelming majority of spinal cord injury causes, there are many other possibilities. The next 10 leading causes of injury, in order from most to least prevalent, are as follows:
- Unclassified, which includes injuries that don’t fit neatly into a single category, or for which adequate data is not available.
- Penetrating wounds, such as an object entering the brain or spinal cord.
- All-terrain vehicle (ATV) accidents.
- Accidents in other vehicles, such as jet skis and boats.
- Snow skiing.
- Winter sports such as snowboarding.
- Horseback riding.
- Surfing, including body surfing.
- Other sports-related injuries.