Basic Information

Living with Spinal Cord Injury

 Caring for Someone with SCI


Doctor with Spinal Cord X-raysWhat is Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)?

An injury that stems from a sudden, traumatic blow to the spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes, or compresses one or more vertebrae.  Additional damage can occur over the following days or weeks due to bleeding, swelling, inflammation and fluid accumulation in or around the spinal cord.

A non-traumatic spinal cord injury may be caused by arthritis, cancer, inflammation, infections or disk degeneration of the spine.

How Many People Have SCI?

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Centerthe number of people in the US who are alive in 2017 who have SCI has been estimated to be approximately 285,000 persons. Arecent estimate showed that the annual incidence of spinal cord injury (SCI) is about 17,500 new SCI cases each year.  New SCI cases do not include those who die at the scene of the accident.


What Causes Spinal Cord Injuries?

Football field injuryIn the United States vehicle crashes are currently the leading cause of spinal cord injury followed by falls, acts of violence (primarily gunshot wounds) and sports/recreational activities.

  • Motor vehicle accidents. Auto and motorcycle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for more than 35 percent of new spinal cord injuries each year.
  • Falls. Spinal cord injury after age 65 is most often caused by a fall. Overall, falls cause more than one-quarter of spinal cord injuries.
  • Acts of violence. Around 15 percent of spinal cord injuries result from violent encounters, often involving gunshot and knife wounds, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
  • Sports and recreation injuries. Athletic activities, such as impact sports and diving in shallow water, cause about 9 percent of spinal cord injuries
  • Alcohol. Alcohol use is a factor in about 1 out of every 4 spinal cord injuries.
  • Diseases. Cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis and inflammation of the spinal cord also can cause spinal cord injuries.

Data above taken from: www.mayoclinic.org/…/spinal-cord-injury/basics/causes/CON-20023837

In Hawai’i from 2009-2013 the common causes of spinal cord injury to residents and non-residents include:

  • Ocean activities = 208 (33%)
  • Falls = 161 (25%)
  • Motor vehicle crashes = 137 (22%)
  • Striking = 33 (5%)
  • Sports injuries (non-aquatic) = 15 (5%)
  • Water dives (non ocean) = 13 (2%)
  • Assault = 13 (2%)
  • Bicycle crashes (no mvc) = 11 (2%)
  • Sky dive = 5 (1%)
  • Other injuries = 36 (5%)

For Hawai’i ocean related activities are the leading cause of spinal cord injury.  From 2009 – 2013 there were 208 spinal cord injuries (70% were non-residents) that were caused by ocean related activities including:

  • Body surfing = 53
  • Body boarding = 46
  • “Tossed by wave” = 63
  • Diving into ocean = 31

*Hawai’i data on ocean related injuries is taken from, Drowning and Aquatic Injury Trends in Hawaii, a presentation by Dan Galanis, Department of Health EMS & Injury Prevention Branch Epidemiologist.

Recognizing a Spinal Cord Injury

Emergency signs and symptoms of spinal cord injury after an accident may include:

  • Extreme back pain or pressure in your neck, head or back
  • Weakness, incoordination or paralysis in any part of your body
  • Numbness, tingling or loss of sensation in your hands, fingers, feet or toes
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Difficulty with balance and walking
  • Impaired breathing after injury
  • An oddly positioned or twisted neck or back

If you suspect that someone has a back or neck injury:

  • DO NOT move the injured person — permanent paralysis and other serious complications may result. Any slight movement may cause further paralysis.
  • Call 911
  • Keep the person still
  • Place heavy towels on both sides of the neck or hold the head and neck to prevent them from moving until emergency care arrives. Any slight movement of their neck may cause further damage or paralysis.
  • Provide basic first aid, such as stopping any bleeding and making the person comfortable, without moving the head or neck