Falls rather than car accidents are now the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, according to a Johns Hopkins study. Serious traumatic spinal cord injuries are on the increase in the United States, and they are rising fastest among older people.

Researchers looked at the records of 43,137 adults treated in hospital emergency rooms for spinal cord injuries in the U.S. from 2007 to 2009.

  • The incidence for those 18 to 64 years old ranged from 52.3 per million in 2007 to 49.9 per million in 2009.
  • The incidence for those 65 and older increased from 79.4 per million in 2007 to 87.7 per million in 2009.
  • Falls were the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injury over the three-year study period (41.5 percent), followed by motor vehicle accidents (35.5 percent).
  • Fall-related spinal cord injuries increased during the study period. Among the elderly, they increased from 23.6 percent to 30 percent of injuries.
  • The average age of adults with a traumatic spinal cord injury in a study that covered 2000 to 2005 was 41. In the new study it was 51.
  • Even after taking into account the severity of the injury and other illnesses experienced, older adults with traumatic spinal cord injuries are four times more likely than younger adults to die in the emergency room due to the injury. If they survive and are admitted to the hospital, they are six times more likely to die during their inpatient stay.

The injuries captured by the data ranged from temporary bruising to severed or permanently damaged cords that caused paralysis, difficulty breathing, an inability to fill and empty the bladder and other motor disabilities.

Researchers admit they can’t say why falls have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of traumatic spinal injuries. But factors may include an older population, with more people leading active lifestyles and engaged in activities that may cause falls. The Tampa metro area attracts many seniors who move to retirement communities in the area and want to remain maintain active. According to the Florida Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Program, 2,748 people were referred to the state registry for brain and spinal cord injuries in 2012, the most recent year of complete statistics.

Swimming pool accidents are a common cause of spinal cord injuries, and Florida is one of states with the highest number of pool accidents because of the popularity of pools here. Some slip and fall accidents are caused by the negligence of a property owner, and those injured may be entitled to compensation to help with ongoing medical bills.

Rising Costs

The cost of these injuries is not just physical but financial. The researchers estimate that from 2007 to 2009, just the emergency room charges for traumatic spinal cord injury patients totaled $1.6 billion. Those charges increased by 20 percent over the study period, far outpacing inflation.

Lifetime care costs for someone with a serious spinal cord injury can range from $1 million to $5 million, depending on the age of the person and the severity of the injury. Improvements in rehab care are lengthening life expectancy among those with spinal cord injuries, which is leading to more care over a longer period of time and higher overall medical bills.