Spinal Cord Injuries in Motor Vehicle Collisions

Automobile Collisions

By Arthur D. Leritz

September 24, 2021

While I often get to help survivors of traumatic brain injuries with their losses and plan for their futures, it’s hard to overlook that in many cases, a traumatic brain injury (TBI) goes hand-in-hand with injury to the spine, perhaps lower down the central nervous system. With all of the advances in diagnosing and treating spinal cord injuries (SCI), here is some recent information on SCIs that you may want to share as you provide care to patients with these types of injuries.

Spinal cord injuries have a devastating impact on the quality of life to those injured and the families around them.  A spinal cord injury occurs when there is damage to any part of the spinal cord nerves at the end of the spinal canal that often results in permanent changes in strength, sensation, motor function, and other bodily functions.  This damage can result in temporary or permanent changes.  If all feeling is lost below the spinal cord injury, it is referred to as a complete spinal cord injury; if there is still some feeling below the spinal cord injury, it is referred to as an incomplete spinal cord injury. In the United States, motor vehicle collisions (auto and motorcycle) are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for almost 40% of new spinal cord injuries each year.[1]  Falls account for another 32% of new spinal cord injuries each year.[2]  In trauma-induced spinal cord injuries, 25% of those have alcohol as a contributing factor.[3]

Additional statistics:

  • The average age at injury is 43;
  • 7% only have a high school education;
  • 3% are single;
  • 78% are male;[4]

Due to advances in medicine, the length of stay in a hospital acute care unit has declined from 24 days since researchers started collecting data in the early 1970s, to 11 days according to data recently gathered from 2015 – 2020.[5]  Post-acute rehabilitation care stays have also declined, from 98 days in the 1970s to 30 days more recently.[6]  Recent data also shows that 30% of individuals with spinal cord injury are re-hospitalized one or more times following injury, with the average hospital stay lasting 18 days.[7]

What has not decreased, however, is the cost to care for an individual who has sustained a spinal cord injury.  As those affected by SCI know, health care costs and living expenses are enormous. For those that sustain a high tetraplegia injury (C1-C4), first year costs exceed $1.1 million, with each subsequent year averaging over $202,000.00.  Lower tetraplegia (C5-C8) first year costs average $840,000.00, with each subsequent year averaging about $125,000.00.[8]

Those who sustain an SCI will most likely have medical complications including chronic bladder and bowel issues and are at increased susceptibility to heart and lung issues.  Rehabilitative care often includes a team to address these issues and assess the individuals’ needs to come up with a comprehensive plan that combines therapies, skills training and counseling to assist in recovery and to increase the quality of life.  Sadly, those with SCI also have a decreased life expectancy.  The normal life expectancy for a healthy male is currently almost 81 years.  A male 40 years of age who sustains a traumatic incomplete SCI will live on average 5 years less; if the injured person 40 years of age sustains a complete SCI and is on a ventilator on the other hand, the life expectancy is only another 13 years.[9]

If you have a patient who has recently sustained a spinal cord injury, the attorneys at Adler Giersch are skilled in the handling of these kind of cases and dealing with insurance coverage issues, Medicare and Medicaid issues, the types of rehabilitative care needed, and how to address the often lifetime damages that come from this kind of injury.


[1] Source: Mayo Clinic; National SCI Statistical Center.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] National SCI Statistical Center.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] National SCI Statistical Center.

[9] Ibid.