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Falls Becoming Leading Cause of Spinal Cord Injuries

As America’s population ages, falls by senior citizens are overtaking motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injuries, a new study shows.

Conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the study demonstrates that the elderly are more susceptible than younger people to falls that cause debilitating spinal cord injuries. Therefore, researchers believe more focus should be placed on finding ways to keep the elderly from falling and hurting their spines.

Approximately 12,000 new cases of spinal cord injuries are reported in the United States each year, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC). They happen when damage occurs to the vertebrae, ligaments, and disks of the spinal column or to the spinal cord and can occur during abrupt, unexpected jolts to the spine. An injury may break, squeeze or dislocate one or more vertebrae.

Motor vehicle accidents that whipped people’s necks abruptly were long the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injuries. However, the new study puts falls in the No. 1 position and suggests that new solutions are needed to prevent falls and spinal injuries.

Details on the Study

In its study, Johns Hopkins researchers examined 43,137 adults nationwide who were treated in emergency rooms for spinal cord injuries from 2007 to 2009. Through this three-year analysis, falls (41.5 percent) surpassed car crashes (35.5 percent) as the leading cause of spinal injuries. In addition, those types of injuries for seniors increased from 23.6 percent to 30 percent during the study period.

Based on the findings, the researchers believe that when comparing the severity of damage with other illnesses in the sample group, seniors who live with spinal cord injuries are four times more likely to die in the emergency room from this condition than younger adults. Moreover, if these same patients survive and are admitted into the hospital, they are six times more likely to die during their stay.

Health-care Costs for Spinal Cord Injuries

The study’s investigators couldn’t determine the exact reason falls are exceeding automobile collisions as the top cause of spinal cord injuries. But they believe the increase could reflect the reality of an aging but active population and motor vehicle technology that enables people to survive severe accidents.

In addition to analyzing the risk factors and demographics of spinal cord injuries across the country, the researchers looked at their impact on the health-care system and concluded that this type of injury is a costly problem. From 2007 to 2009, emergency room bills for traumatic spinal cord injuries jumped to $1.6 billion, a 20 percent increase that far outpaced inflation.

The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center estimates that the lifetime costs of someone who lives with a spinal cord injury can range from $1 million to $5 million, depending on the extent of the injury and the person’s age. With those costs in mind, researchers stress a need to find ways to protect senior citizens from succumbing to falls.