This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 12, 2014.
The number of serious spinal cord injuries in the United States is rising, and it’s not for the reason you may think. Falls, especially among older Americans, now surpass car accidents as the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, according to new research from Johns Hopkins University.
Data from 2007 to 2009 showed researchers that the spinal cord injury rate dropped in the 18-64 age group, but rose among those 65 and older, enough to boost the rate for the overall U.S. population. Researchers also found that spinal cord injuries are four to six times more likely to be fatal for the senior population compared with the younger age group.
Spinal injuries caused by falls increased for all age groups during the study period, but they increased the most for seniors. The scientists say they aren’t sure exactly why fall injuries surpassed those from car accidents, but they suspect it’s because the average age of the U.S. population is rising and people over age 65 are leading more active lives. At the same time, airbags and seat belt laws are better at protecting people in car crashes.
The data was based on patients whose spinal cord injuries caused them to visit an emergency room. Injury severity ranged from spinal bruises to difficulty breathing, moving or controlling the bladder, and, in the worst cases, paralysis.
As The Chronicle previously reported, several Bay Area medical and senior centers now offer fall prevention programs to help aging patients minimize their chances of injury.
Here’s a look at spinal cord injuries by the numbers.
The number of traumatic spinal cord injuries per million Americans ages 65 or older in 2009. That’s an increase over the 2007 rate of 79.4 incidents per million.
The number of traumatic spinal cord injuries per million Americans ages 18-64 in 2009. This is a decrease from the 2007 rate of 52.3 incidents per million.
The percentage of traumatic spinal cord injuries from 2007 to 2009 that were caused by falls. Motor vehicle accidents were next, causing 35.5 percent of spinal injuries.
The estimated total cost of emergency room treatment to all patients with traumatic spinal cord injury from 2007-09, the Johns Hopkins researchers reported. The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center said individual costs of care and rehabilitation can range from $1 million to $5 million over a patient’s lifetime, depending on the person’s age and injury.