The Severity of a Complete Spinal Cord Injury

The Severity of a Complete Spinal Cord InjuryAn injury to the spine or spinal cord is often considered catastrophic, as it can affect every system of the body, including mobility. Depending on the location of the injury on the spinal cord, this type of injury can even cause full paralysis. If you or a loved experienced a spinal cord injury in an accident, in the hours and days after the accident, you are likely concerned and worried about the extent of the injury. Will you be able to walk again? Move your arms and hands? Will you be able to resume daily activities and work?

The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC) collects and publishes data each year about traumatic spinal cord injuries (“SCI”). They report that, as of 2021, nearly 300,000 Americans are living with SCIs, with 18,000 more cases happening each year. About 32% of these are complete SCIs, which are the most severe spinal cord injuries.

What is the difference between a complete and incomplete SCI?

One of the most important factors in determining the severity of a spinal cord injury, or SCI, is whether your injury is a complete or incomplete SCI. The difference between the two can make a large impact on your treatment and recovery process.

A complete SCI happens when the spinal cord is fully severed or crushed. This prevents the brain from sending signals past the point of injury, causing a total loss of function and sensation below the site of injury on both sides of the body.

An incomplete SCI, on the other hand, occurs when the spinal cord is able to retain some amount of function. A patient will have varying degrees of sensation and function on either side – they might be able to move one arm but not the other, for example, depending on the location and severity of the injury.

The first step in treating a spinal cord injury is receiving immediate medical attention and a prompt diagnosis.

Diagnosing a complete spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injuries, like any catastrophic injury, require emergency medical treatment. At the scene of the accident, EMTs will typically stabilize a patient to prevent further damage and then transport them to a nearby hospital or trauma center.

Doctors and medical personnel will perform a physical exam, checking for movement or sensation below the site of injury. The National Institute of Health (NIH) notes physicians will also use diagnostic tools like MRIs, CT scans, and X-rays to determine the extent of the injury.

The NIH also explains that with SCIs, damage can be both primary and secondary: “Primary damage is immediate and is caused directly by the injury. Secondary damage results from inflammation and swelling that can press on the spinal cord and vertebrae, as well as from changes in the activity of cells and cell death.”

Is there treatment for a complete spinal cord injury?

You or your loved one will receive emergency and immediate treatment right after your injury, such as stabilization, surgery to remove bone fragments or anything pressing on your spinal column, procedures to reduce swelling, and the like. After this acute treatment is over, a more individualized treatment plan begins.

A complete SCI is a permanent and, as mentioned earlier, catastrophic injury. This means it is an injury that will never heal and never get better. Treatment for a spinal cord injury revolves around quality of life and rehabilitation. Per the NIH:

A rehabilitation team is usually led by a doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation (called a physiatrist) and often includes social workers, physical and occupational therapists, recreational therapists, rehabilitation nurses, rehabilitation psychologists, vocational counselors, nutritionists, a case worker, and other specialists.

Patients may also use devices like wheelchairs, electronic stimulators, neural protheses, and other technologies.

What causes a complete spinal cord injury?

Traumatic spinal cord injuries are often caused by negligent accidents and incidents. The NSCISC reports the most common causes of SCIs between 2010 and 2020:

  • Vehicular crashes – 38.09%
  • Falls – 31.22%
  • Violence – 14.22%
  • Sports and recreation – 8.52%
  • Other – 4.33%

Other than being a life-altering injury, a complete SCI is incredibly expensive. The NSCISC also reports the lifetime cost of a spinal cord injury for a 25-year-old is $5,404,774 as of 2021, and these costs go up every year. They also state, “The average remaining years of life for persons with SCI have not improved since the 1980s and remain significantly below life expectancies of persons without SCI.”

Who is liable for my Los Angeles spinal cord injury?

If you or someone you love suffered a complete SCI due to another’s negligence, you can file a personal injury action against that party, and any other responsible party. Depending on the circumstances of your accident and injury, liable persons and parties may include:

  • An at-fault motorist or truck driver
  • The owner of dangerous premises
  • A negligent surgeon or physician
  • The manufacturer of a defective product or vehicle
  • The person who assaulted you
  • A school district that didn’t properly supervise its athletes

An experienced attorney can help identify all liable parties and ensure you are compensated for your injuries. The personal injury lawyers at McNicholas & McNicholas know how to hold the right people accountable and determine the full scope of your injuries in order to secure maximum compensation for your injuries and losses. Our attorneys handle catastrophic injury cases in the Los Angeles area. Call today to schedule a consultation, or fill out our contact form.

Please note that this blog is not to be construed as legal advice. Because every case is fact-specific, you should consult directly with an attorney to obtain legal advice specific to your situation.