Spinal cord damage is one of the most devastating injuries. In a sudden traumatic blow, most often related to an accident, an individual can lose the ability to perform simple daily tasks.
Each year, roughly 1,100 New Yorkers suffer traumatic spinal cord injuries, according to the New York State Spinal Cord Injury Research Board (SCIRB). Approximately 288,000 individuals in the U.S. are living with spinal cord damage. There is currently no guaranteed way to fully repair extreme spinal cord damage—only treatment and rehab for improved quality of life.
The first year with a spinal cord injury can accumulate medical expenses of over $1.1 million, while costs for each subsequent year have been known to top $190,000, according to SCIRB. Filing a personal injury lawsuit can help cover medical costs, lost wages while out of work, and other damages, including pain and suffering.
The Spinal Cord’s Key Role
The spinal cord is a complex structure that plays a key role in one of the body’s most important functions: brain-to-body, and body-to-brain communication. It stands out for its long, thin, and cylindrical shape, about 18 inches as it extends from the base of the brain to the lower back.
The spine is made of nervous tissue and flanked by two consecutive rows of nerve roots on each of its sides. These nerve roots make up 31 pairs of spinal nerves, which contain motor and sensory nerve fibers, says Neuroscience Online. The vital task of these fibers is to communicate with the central nervous system, which consists of the spinal cord and brain. The spinal cord also works independently of the brain to control reflex action.
What is a Spinal Cord Injury?
A spinal cord injury can result from damage to any part of the spinal cord, the spine’s 33 vertebrae, ligaments and discs of the spinal column, and/or nerves at the bottom of the spinal canal (<i>cauda equina</i>).
Because the spinal cord has a direct connection to nerve cells, there can be life-altering damage even when the cord is not severed, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In fact, most often the cord does remain intact. But a sudden traumatic blow to the spine can fracture or dislocate vertebrae, and force bone fragments, ligaments, and more to tear into spinal cord tissue.
When axons (extensions of nerve cells) are crushed and destroyed, they’re no longer able to deliver messages up and down the spinal cord and the result can be paralysis.
Levels of Severity
Depending on how the injury occurred, there can be various levels of severity. The doctor often refers to this as the level of completeness. As one might imagine, a complete injury is the most debilitating. Thanks to improved treatment and response, more than 60 percent of all spinal disfunction today is incomplete, meaning the sufferer still has some use of their body, as explained below:
- Complete: The loss of all motor function and sensory feeling below the injury site.
- Incomplete: A partial loss of feeling and function, indicating that the brain and body are still able to deliver some messages, and there may remain sensation and movement below the injury site.
Furthermore, an injury to the spinal cord can include bruises (contusions), a partial tear, or a complete tear, also known as transection.
Location Can Make a SCI More Severe
Knowing the location of a spinal cord injury is key to understanding the physical consequences involved. Caged inside the spinal column, the spinal cord is divided into the following four regions (not including the tailbone). Each is associated with a specific type of dysfunction, including:
- Cervical: An injury starting from the cervical or neck area is the most serious, with the potential for causing paralysis or weakness in both arms and legs. The higher the injury is along the spinal cord, the more devastating the impact. The late Christopher Reeve, perhaps best known as Superman of movie fame, was paralyzed from the neck down after he hit the ground head-first in an equestrian accident.
- Thoracic: The upper back is protected by the rib cage, which makes spinal cord injury in this region less common. These injuries can mean paralysis or weakness in both legs as well as the loss of physical sensation.
- Lumbar: Stemming from the lower back, this injury also can cause paralysis or weakness in the legs, as well as the loss of physical sensation.
- Sacral: With an injury to the sacral region in the pelvic area, the main consequence is the loss of bladder and bowel function, along with sexual dysfunction, but weakness or paralysis to the hips and legs is also possible.
More Spinal Injuries
Some other common spinal injuries include:
- Tetraplegia: (also known as quadriplegia) the most severe, impacting arms, hands, trunk, legs, and pelvic organs with different degrees of paralysis. The tetraplegic loses the ability to move anything below the injury to his cervical spinal cord. Routine functions like bladder and bowel control can be affected as well as respiration, requiring use of a ventilator.
- Paraplegia: less severe than tetraplegia, this thoracic spinal cord injury encompasses the lower half of the body, including all or part of the legs, pelvic organs, and trunk.
- Triplegia: a loss of movement and sensation in both legs and a single arm, usually resulting from an incomplete spinal cord injury.
- Anterior cord syndrome: (also known as ventral cord syndrome) a frontal spinal cord injury resulting from compression of the anterior spinal artery and affecting motor and sensory pathways.
- Central cord syndrome: an injury to the central region of the spinal cord that damages nerves involved in brain-spine messaging. The result is paralysis to the arms, loss of fine motor skills, some loss of leg function, and possible reduction of bowel, bladder, and sexual functions.
- Brown-Sequard syndrome: Since this injury results from damage to one side of the spinal cord, impairment may be more severe on one side of the body.
What Causes a Spinal Cord Injury?
There are various ways a person can suffer spinal cord injury. Some can be traumatic, stemming from a severe, sudden blow that bends or compresses the spine or neck. Others tend to be age- or disease- related.
- Motor vehicle accidents, including motorcycles, bicycles, and injury to a pedestrian, are the leading cause of spinal cord injury at 38 percent of all such injuries since 2015, says the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
- Falls are the second largest contributor to spinal cord damage at about 32 percent and the No. 1 cause of spinal injury for those 65 years of age or older. For senior citizens, it can be tripping over a simple household object that causes spinal cord injury due to osteoporosis.
- Violence, with knife and bullet wounds being two common examples, make up 13.8 percent of spinal cord injuries. In children, physical abuse also can impact a spinal cord.
- Athletic injuries (8.2 percent of spinal cord injuries) may encompass not only a forceful blow during a contact sport, but also diving and trampoline accidents. In football, a spinal injury can result when tackling with the upper part of the helmet.
- Medical malpractice and birth injuries may impact the neck area. Medical and surgical origins represent 4.6 percent of all spinal cord injury cases.
- Illness- or age-related dysfunction. This may include cancer, spinal disk degeneration, arthritis, inflammation, and infections that form an abscess on the spinal cord.
Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury
A back or neck injury following a severe trauma should prompt immediate medical attention. Since symptoms of a spinal cord injury can come on gradually, it’s best to assume there has been damage and seek evaluation without delay.
According to the Mayo Clinic, never move the injured person (to do so might cause paralysis). Instead, keep him still with heavy towels on both sides of the neck to prevent movement, and call 911. It’s OK to stop any bleeding with basic first aid as long as the injured party is not moved.
The following are emergency symptoms of a spinal cord injury:
- Excruciating back pain or pressure in the back, head, or neck
- Paralysis, weakness in the body, or the inability to coordinate movement. Onset can be immediate or gradual based on bleeding and swelling around the spinal cord.
- Loss of sensation, numbness, or tingling in the extremities
- Difficulty breathing
- A strange or twisted position of the back or neck
Types of Lawsuits Associated with Spinal Cord Injury
Since there are various causes of spinal cord damage, there are also various types of lawsuits to seek compensation. Here are some possible outcomes:
- Negligence in an accident: In a motor vehicle crash where another was to blame, and in other types of accidents, such as might stem from building disrepair, if there was negligence, a personal injury lawsuit can be an option. Motorcycle and car accidents are the most common cause of spinal cord injuries. New York does not set a cap on pain and suffering damages, although car accident cases typically go through insurance before there is any legal action.
- Defective products: Perhaps an accident results from an SUV’s faulty braking system, a factory error that was never recalled, and the victim sustains spinal cord damage. The injured party could sue the manufacturer or any others responsible with a defective product liability claim.
- Medical malpractice: When a doctor is to blame for a surgery-related accident, birth injury, or other spinal trauma, the result can be grounds for a malpractice complaint. And when the negligence proves fatal, a wrongful death suit could be filed against the surgeon or responsible party.
- Workplace accidents: Falls are the No. 2 cause of spinal cord injury and the most common construction-related accident (excluding highway collisions). Falls resulted in 338 out of 1,008 construction deaths in 2018, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
For those who struggle with spinal cord injuries from a construction fall or another workplace accident, workman’s comp may not be the only recourse if the employer’s intentional conduct or that of a third party is to blame. An example might be a fall caused by haphazard scaffolding, which the employer knew about but failed to replace.
How to File a Spinal Injury Lawsuit
Because a spinal cord injury cannot be cured and often involves a measure of paralysis, costs after the accident can be astronomical. To protect your rights, consider talking to a personal injury attorney who can explain the options for maximizing your award potential.
Call 855-468-7626 for a free consultation with a spinal injury lawyer in New York. Sobo & Sobo’s personal injury attorneys have helped victims and their families by winning compensation for damages for over 50 years. Call or visit one of our New York City or Hudson Valley locations today to see what you are owed for your spinal injury.