Falls appear to be the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injuries, surpassing motor vehicle crashes, according to study results recently published online in the Journal of Neurotrauma. The rates of these injuries are rising fastest among older people.
“We have demonstrated how costly traumatic spinal cord injury is and how lethal and disabling it can be among older people,” according to Shalini Selvarajah, MD, MPH, a postdoctoral surgical research fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study. “It’s an area that is ripe for prevention.”
Johns Hopkins researchers analyzed a nationally representative sample of 43,137 adults treated in hospital emergency rooms for spinal cord injury in the United States between 2007 and 2009. They found the incidence per million in individuals aged 65 years and older increased from 79.4 in 2007 to 87.7 in 2009, whereas the incidence among those aged 18 to 64 years ranged from 52.3 per million in 2007 to 49.9 per million in 2009.
Over the 3-year study period, falls were found to be the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injury (41.5%), followed by motor vehicle crashes (35.5%). Among the elderly, fall-related spinal cord injuries increased from 23.6% to 30% over the same period.
The researchers found that older adults with traumatic spinal cord injury are four times more likely to die in the emergency room from such an injury compared with younger adults. If they survive and are admitted, they are six times more likely to die during their hospital stay, according to study results.
The researchers said a combination of the general aging of the population, the more active lifestyles of many Americans older than 65 years, and airbags and seat belt laws that have improved crash survival may be the reason that falls have surpassed vehicle crashes as the major cause of traumatic spinal injuries.
The lifetime costs of care for someone with a serious spinal cord injury can range from $1 million to $5 million, depending on injury severity and the age of the person at the time of injury, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
“With so much emphasis on trying to reduce health care costs right now, this is another reason why preventing the injury altogether is so vital,” Selvarajah stated in a news release.