Risk Factors and Causes of Spinal Cord Injury

While spinal cord injuries can happen to anyone, certain populations may be more prone to them. According to the Mayo Clinic, 80 percent of spinal cord injuries in the United States occur in men. Age is another risk factor. People aged 18–35 are more likely to sustain spinal cord injuries from car or motorcycle accidents, and the elderly are more likely to become injured in falls.

Athletes, particularly gymnasts, skiers, hockey players, divers, and surfers are at increased risk. Patients with diseases that affect the bones and joints are also more susceptible to spinal cord injuries.

The Mayo Clinic notes that approximately 50 percent of spinal cord injuries are caused by motor vehicle accidents and approximately 24 percent result from falls. Acts of violence (primarily gunshot wounds) account for approximately 11 percent of cases and sports and other recreational activities cause about 9 percent of spinal cord injuries. Diseases such as cancer, arthritis, and osteoporosis are another common cause.

Spinal Cord Injury Prevention

There are many ways to prevent spinal cord injuries. In motor vehicles, drivers and passengers should always wear seat belts and make sure that children are properly secured in a child safety seat. Children under age 12 should always ride in the back seat. People who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs should not drive; nor should any passenger get into a car with an impaired person at the wheel.

Elderly people are more prone to spinal cord injuries from falls. Many modifications can be made in the home to minimize this risk, including securing banisters and railings, and installing grab bars in the bathroom, and non-slip bathmats on both the bathroom floor and the shower. Keeping floor space clear and wearing non-slip shoes can help prevent tripping.

Homes with children should be equipped with safety gates and window guards to prevent falls down stairs and out windows.

Athletes can help protect themselves by wearing proper safety gear. Helmets should be worn when playing football, hockey, baseball, and softball. Bikers, motorcyclists, skiers, horseback riders, and skaters should always wear helmets as well. Swimmers should make sure that water is deep enough for diving and gymnasts should always use spotters.

Firearms should be kept unloaded in a locked case and ammunition should be locked separately. Members of the community can help prevent spinal cord injuries by educating the public, particularly children, on how to stay safe. Coaches can insist that their athletes follow proper procedures regarding safety gear and playing safely.

Signs & Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injury

In many cases, it is not immediately clear whether or not a spinal cord injury has occurred. Any person who may have sustained an injury to the spinal cord must be kept completely still until emergency medical personnel arrive.

Symptoms of spinal cord injury depend on the type of injury (e.g., complete, incomplete) and the location (e.g., cervical [neck], thoracic [middle back]).

Spinal cord injury may cause the following:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Inability to move or to feel sensations (e.g., cold, heat, touch)
  • Loss of normal bowel and bladder control (e.g., constipation, urinary incontinence, bladder spasms)
  • Numbness and weakness
  • Problems maintaining balance
  • Severe pain and/or pressure in the back or neck

Spinal Cord Injury Diagnosis

In some cases, physicians are able to assess a spinal cord injury by talking with the patient, by performing an examination, and by testing for motor and sensory ability. If the patient is unable to answer questions or symptoms indicate more severe damage, a number of diagnostic tests can be used to provide more information about the injury and its consequences.

X-rays of the spine can detect tumors, fractures, and problems with vertebrae. CT (computerized tomography) scan can provide more detail about issues that show up on x-ray. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan can help detect blood clots, herniated disks, and other issues that may be affecting the spinal cord. Myelography involves using dye to help identify damage to spinal nerves.

Other tests may be conducted within days of a spinal cord injury, including a neurological examination, which provides additional information about the severity of the injury. These tests can be used to help determine the degree of recovery that can be expected and how treatment should proceed.

In most cases, recovery depends on how patients respond to various treatment procedures and how they adapt to the changes in their lives.

Publication Review By: Alan B. Ettinger, M.D.

Published: 14 Feb 2007

Last Modified: 06 Oct 2015