Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury Facts and Figures

How many people have traumatic SCI, what are the top 5 causes, and how common is complete paraplegia? Plus, a snapshot of lifetime costs.

The 2019 figures below from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC) help paint a clearer picture of traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI)—who it affects, what causes it, and how much it costs. It is important to note that spinal cord injury is categorized as 2 types: traumatic and non-traumatic. The facts in this article provide information specific to traumatic SCI.
Paramedics giving first aid to a girl after an accident.First responders to the scene of an accident are paramedics who help stabilize the patient for transport to the hospital. Photo Source:

Who Has Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury?

  • In the United States alone, approximately 17,730 new SCI cases occur each year (not including those who die at the scene of a traumatic event).
  • Most new spinal cord injuries affect men—men account for 78% of new cases.
  • The average age at the time of injury is going up. In the 1970s, the average age at time of SCI was 29 years, but it’s now 43 years.
  • Estimates show that 291,000 people are living with SCI in the United States today.

What Causes Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury?

Below are the top 5 causes of traumatic SCI:

  1. Car crashes: 39.3% of cases
  2. Falls: 31.8% of cases
  3. Violent acts: 13.5% of cases
  4. Sports and recreation: 8.0% of cases
  5. Medical/surgical complications: 4.3%% of cases

The Spectrum of Severity for Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury

The severity of SCI depends on where the spinal cord is damaged, and if the injury is complete or incomplete.

  • A complete SCI means you have completely lost feeling and motor function below the affected area.
  • An incomplete SCI means you still feel some sensation or can move below the affected part of the body.

SCI damage may cause paraplegia or tetraplegia. Paraplegia is paralysis (the inability to move) of both legs. Tetraplegia, also known as quadriplegia, means paralysis of both arms and both legs.

Tetraplegia occurs at the top of your spine—in the cervical spine, or neck. Your doctor may refer to your injury as “high” tetraplegia, meaning the damage is at the top of your neck (C1-C4). If your damage is called “low” tetraplegia, it occurred lower down on your cervical spine (C5-C7).

Below are the most common results of traumatic SCI:

  • Complete paraplegia: 19.6% of cases
  • Complete tetraplegia: 12.3% of cases
  • Incomplete paraplegia: 19.9% of cases
  • Incomplete tetraplegia: 47.6% of cases
  • Normal sensation and function: 0.6% of cases

Snapshot of Hospital Stays and Lifetime Costs

  • Compared to the 1970s, hospital stays for SCI have gone down. Hospital stays averaged 24 days in the 1970s, but they are 11 days today. Rehabilitation stays have also dropped to 31 days—down from 98 days in the 1970s.
  • About 30% of people with SCI are re-hospitalized at least once a year after their injury, with each hospital stay averaging 19 days. Genitourinary system (reproductive and urinary organs) diseases are the top reason for re-hospitalization. Skin diseases are another common cause of re-hospitalization, as are respiratory, digestive, circulatory, and musculoskeletal problems.

Traumatic SCI is a very costly disorder. The NSCISC published the following lifetime costs related to spinal cord injury, which don’t include indirect costs (such as lost wages or productivity).

estimated lifetime costs by age at spinal cord injuryTable of estimated lifetime costs by ages 25 and 50 at time of spinal cord injury. Extracted from Historical Lifetime Costs, NSCISC Spinal Cord Injury Facts and Figures at a Glance, 2019 SCI Data Sheet.

Life Expectancy and Cause of Death After Spinal Cord Injury

People who experience a traumatic spinal cord injury have lower life expectancies than people who do not have an SCI. For example, a 40-year-old at the time of injury who has low tetraplegia is expected to live another 24 years after the first year of injury. If that person did not have SCI, his or her life expectancy would be another 41 years.

SCI life expectancies vary by age at the time of injury and severity of injury. During the first year after the injury, mortality rates are highest—they decrease after the one-year anniversary of the injury.

The top causes of death for patients surviving SCI are pneumonia and septicemia (blood poisoning). Other common causes of death for people with traumatic SCI are endocrine, metabolic, and/or nutritional diseases; nervous system problems; musculoskeletal disorders; and mental health disorders. Researchers continue to study and refine innovative treatments to help people who experience spinal cord injury live longer, healthier lives.

Suggested Additional Reading
A special issue of the Global Spine Journal set forth guidelines for the Management of Degenerative Myelopathy and Acute Spinal Cord Injury, which is summarized on SpineUniverse in Summary of the Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Management of Degenerative Cervical Myelopathy and Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury.

Updated on: 07/12/19
Continue Reading
Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury's Secondary Injury Cascade
Continue Reading:

Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury's Secondary Injury Cascade

Within a few hours after spinal cord injury, a series of changes called the secondary injury cascade begins and may continue months past the initial SCI.
Read More