Spinal Cord Injuries Due to Falls are Increasing, Says Johns Hopkins Study By Tod Aronovitz | 02/04/14 | 0 Comment

Falls—not motor vehicle crashes—have become the leading cause of an increase in the number of serious traumatic spinal cord injuries in the United States, according a new study published online in the Journal of Neurotrauma by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Symptoms of serious traumatic spinal cord injury range from temporary numbness to complete paralysis.

The study also found that the rates of these injuries are fastest growing among older individuals, suggesting that efforts to prevent falls in the elderly could notably curtail the total number of spinal injuries in the U.S.

Johns Hopkins researchers analyzed a nationally representative sample of 43,137 adults treated in hospital emergency rooms for spinal cord injury in the U.S. between 2007 and 2009.  While the number of falls in 18- to 64-year olds actually dropped from 52.3 per million in 2007 to 49.9 per million in 2009, the incidence per million in those 65 and older increased from 79.4 per million to 87.7 per million during the same time period.

During the three-year study, falls were the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injury at 41.5 percent followed by motor vehicle crashes at 35.5 percent. Fall-related spinal cord injuries increased during the study period overall.  Among seniors 65 and older, the number of spinal cord injuries increased from 23.6 percent to 30 percent of injuries.  In addition, the average age of adults with traumatic spinal cord injuries rose from 41 years to 51 years.

Researchers believe a triple combination of the general aging of the population, more active lifestyles of many Americans over 65, and airbags and seatbelt laws may be contributing factors as to why falls have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injuries.

The study also discovered that older seniors with traumatic spinal cord injury are four times more likely to die in the ER from such an injury compared to younger individuals.  More troubling, those seniors who are admitted are six times more likely to die during their inpatient stay.

Beyond the personal toll, there is the mounting financial burden on the health care system, according to the researchers. They estimate that from 2007 to 2009, ER charges alone totaled $1.6 billion, increasing by 20 percent, far more than the rate of inflation.

Shalini Selvarajah, M.D., M.P.H., a postdoctoral surgical research fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study stated in a news release, “We have demonstrated how costly traumatic spinal cord injury is and how lethal and disabling it can be among older people.  It’s an area that is ripe for prevention.”

The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center figured the lifetime costs of care for someone with a serious spinal cord injury can range from $1 million to $5 million, depending on age of the person at the time of injury and the severity of the injury.  Advances in patient care have led to longer life expectancies, but also bigger medical bills.

A recent campaign by the National Institutes of Health is funding a project to determine better ways to prevent falls that lead to traumatic brain injury in the elderly.  Eric B. Schneider, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Center for Surgical Trials and Outcomes Research, said that this effort could also lead to a coincidental reduction in traumatic spinal cord injury.

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