Spinal Cord Injuries
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Spinal cord injuries account for some of the most complex cases handled by personal injury lawyers. In addition to the physical and personal toll they can have on victims, there are also unique concerns related to finances, medical treatment, and lifestyle changes.
And while some spinal cord injury victims fully recover or see vast improvement, others will suffer permanent damage that require special efforts to account for limited mobility. This may include a custom-made vehicle and/or home that is wheelchair accessible, voice-activated, etc.
*Note: Spinal cord injury causes are defined as either traumatic (accidents/violence)
or non-traumatic (disease/medical conditions). Our injury resource guide will focus on spinal cord injuries caused by traumatic incidents.
Understanding a spinal cord injury
Simply put, anytime damage to a person’s spinal cord negatively affects their ability to move and/or causes a loss of feeling or sensation in an extremity, they have suffered a spinal cord injury, also know as a SCI.
A common misperception is to believe that a person’s spinal cord must be completely severed for their bodies to experience limited mobility and/or sensation. In reality, the vast majority of spinal cord injury victims will have a fully intact cord that only exhibits signs of damage.
It is also important to fully distinguish spinal cord injuries from back injuries. The two conditions are entirely independent of one another. Back injuries that result in pinched nerves, inflammation, ruptured disks, or spinal stenosis do not affect the actual spinal cord.
In fact, it is possible for an accident victim to sustain a broken neck or back and escape a serious spinal cord injury. For example, a car accident may result in damage to one or many of the bones and vertebrae along the spine, however, if the victim is properly stabilized, the broken bones along their spine will have a chance to heal, leaving them less likely to experience a paralysis or loss of mobility and functionality.
Ultimately, the spinal cord is the nerve center of your body, responsible for a number of complex tasks, including the ability to walk, maintaining control over your reflexes, and allowing all the different parts of your body to communicate with the brain.
Leading causes of spinal cord injuries
The entire list breaks down as follows:
- Auto accidents – 38%
Despite giant leaps in safety technology, such as automated driver assistance, the violent nature of auto accidents, especially those involving semi-trucks, motorcycles, and interstate-related crashes, remain the leading cause of serious spinal cord injuries.
- Falls – 30.5%
When we receive a call about a spinal injury related to a fall the location of the incident typically has occurred on a work site, often construction-related, or in a nursing home.
- Violence – 13.5%
- Sports – 9%
- Surgical mistakes – 5%
When a spinal injury results from surgery, it is possible that medical malpractice has occurred. These cases can be especially difficult to pursue and will almost always require professional legal assistance.
- Miscellaneous – 4%
Spinal cord vs spine
Many people use the terms spinal cord and spine interchangeably, but they are in fact independent of one another and have different functions.
The spinal cord is an intricate and long superhighway of nerve cells and fibers that stretch the length of a person’s back from the base of their brain to just above the tailbone.
The brain initiates nerve signals which are then dispensed by the spinal cord to every part of a person’s body, including our arms, hands, fingers, legs, toes, etc. These signals then return to the brain, completing a pathway of massaging that controls voluntary and involuntary movement. This also includes bodily function controlled by the diaphragm, bowels, and bladder.
And while they exist in tandem, the spine is different than the spinal cord in that it is the segmented bone structure comprised of 33 individual bones that provides support to the head/torso and thorax. The spine’s structure is what allows us to stand up, twist our bodies and enables to exhibit a wide range of motion.
In short, without the spine, our spinal cord would be completely exposed to external dangers. It serves as a critical shield to the spinal cord that allows us to perform everyday activity.
Spinal cord – levels of injury
When we read or hear about someone that has suffered a spinal cord injury, the damage will usually be labeled by the specific location of the vertebrae that was affected.
For example, the late actor Christopher Reeve, one of the more visible spinal cord injury victims, suffered damage at C2, and this would regularly be mentioned in any articles or discussion related to the actor.
The reason it is important to understand where the spinal cord injury is located is because the higher up the location of the damage, the more likely it is the dysfunction will be long-lasting or permanent.
Below is a brief rundown of the vertebrae grouped by individual sections:
Cervical Nerves (High & Low)
Located in the upper portion of our spines, damage to the High & Low cervical nerves account for the majority of tetraplegia and quadriplegia cases.
C1-C4 – High-Cervical Nerves
Damage to this section of the spinal cord accounts for the most serious of injuries, often leaving a person with long-term paralysis or loss of sensory functions.
Spinal cord injury victims with damage to C1-C4 may require medical needs that include any of the following:
- equipment to help with breathing
- assistance with daily tasks
- motorized wheelchair
C5-C8 – Low-Cervical Nerves
An accident that causes damage to the vertebrae in this section are less likely to suffer a complete loss of function in all four limbs (known as quadriplegia), however, they may still suffer from a number of serious after-effects, depending on the location and severity of the affected vertebrae.
C-5 and C-6 are higher on the spine, meaning the affects of injuries at this location will be more significant, including:
- Possible paralysis in wrists, hands, trunk or legs
- Weakened breathing
- Ability to use a motorized wheelchair
- Will require assistance with daily activities
C-7 and C-8 spinal cord injuries can leave victims with various stages of limited mobility, and the inability to control their bowel or bladder, however, they may also be more likely to be able to complete tasks such as drive a custom-vehicle outfitted with special controls.
Located in the middle of the back, damage to this area of the spinal cord can still result in traumatic injuries, however, they are often not as severe as those involving damage to the cervical nerves.
The nerves at T1-T5 communicate with a person’s muscles, middle of their back and upper chest. It is not uncommon for an injury in this area to leave a person’s hands and arms fully functional, yet cause partial or full paralysis in their legs.
An accident that causes injury to this may result in the following:
- Victims may use a manual wheelchair vs one that is motorized
- Will likely be able to drive a specially outfitted vehicle
- May be able to walk with specially-outfitted braces
The nerves at T6-T12 communicate with a person’s trunk muscles, middle of their back and upper chest. Injury to this area of the spinal cord will have some of the same affects as those seen in T1-T5, however, upper body movement is usually normal.
Featuring the largest vertebrae in our spine, the lumbar section is located near the bottom of the spine and is responsible for bearing the largest amount of weight.
Damage to the L1-L5 nerves can result in less serious complications due to their location on the spine, however, after-effects may include:
- Compromised abilities in the hips and legs
- Minimum or no control of bladder and bowel
- May need the use of a manual wheelchair, or can potentially walk with braces
An area of the spine comprised of 5 bones that are fused together, the sacral nerves are primarily responsible for sensation and communication throughout the mid-section of our bodies.
Damage to the S1-S5 nerves can leave a person with a number of complications, however, they are often less severe than damage done to neighboring spinal cord nerves higher on the spine. After-effects may include:
- Compromised bladder and bowel control
- Minimal loss of function in legs or hip area
- Most sacral spine injury victims will have the ability to walk
Complete vs Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury
The level of damage and the after-effects caused by a spinal cord injury are divided into two categories: complete vs incomplete.
When an accident victims suffers a “complete” spinal cord injury, this means that all messaging capability between the spinal cord and their brain has stopped. Anyone with a complete SCI will have a total loss of function below the point of injury on their spine.
If the same victim were to suffer an “incomplete” spinal cord injury, there will still be messaging capabilities between their spinal cord and brain. The damage will compromise the person’s ability to function, but it does not necessarily take away full sensory perception and/or movement.
While complete spinal cord injuries represent the more traumatic of the two types, incomplete can also be severe.
Emergency care for spinal cord injuries
Many stories exist of car accident or fall victims who have suffered additional injury to their spine due to a rescuer’s attempt to help them, or their own attempts to move themselves before medical personnel arrive. And while cases like this do exist, they also illustrate the need for immediate stabilization and emergency medical intervention.
The following types of emergency care are critical to minimizing the amount of damage that is done to the spinal cord following a serious car accident or fall.
Stabilizing the accident victim
Commonly seen at car accident scenes, backboards and neck collars were once consdiered key to immobilizing a victim to ensure further damage to their spine did not occur. However, in recent years there have been a number of other practices employed to help ensure the proper stabilization of accident victims. Some of these methods include, scoop stretchers, soft tarps, KEDs, and vaccum splints.
No matter the type of immobilization technique used by first-responders, it is key that 911 be called as quickly as possible so that additional damage is not sustained.
Depending on the severity of the spinal injury, emergency surgery may be required to remove foreign objects, bone fragments, blood clots, etc. Anything that may be placing undue pressure on the spinal cord or compromising the nerves could be a threat that causes further damage. Surgery also gives doctors a chance to realign the vertebrae.
Surgery is ultiamtely used ot further stabilize the spine and give a victim the best chance at escaping serious spinal cord injury, or lessening the chances of permanent after-effects.
Most of us are familiar with someone who has had metal hardware installed to aid in the healing of a broken bone. A similar type of procedures is used for someone in need of a psinal fusion.
Depending on the area of the spine that is affected, doctors may surgically install metal plates, rods, screws, and or wiring to realign the spine, giving it the best chance to properly heal.
If the area of injury is concentrated on the cervical area of the spine, surgeons may stabilize through the throat, neck, or both. In teh event that an injury affects the thoracic or lumbar area of the spine, surgeons will make their incision in the pateint’s back.
Indianapolis spinal cord injury attorney
Attorney Matt Boulton has more than 20 years’ experience helping the seriously injured thorughout the state of Indiana. Boulton Law Group is a trial practice firm that focuses on and has extensive experience with catastrophic accident claims that involve spinal cord injuries.
Our firm was founded for the sole purpose of giving accident victims and their families a combination of exceptional customer service and award-winning legal representation.
Being highly sought after, attorney Boulton is selective about the cases the firm handles. This allows him to make significant emotional investments into improving the lives and long-term care of his clients.
Each member of Boulton Law Group staff is handpicked for their unique talents, compassion, and experience in the legal arena. This helps to ensure that our clients have the team necessary to stack up against insurance companies and other defendants.
The complexity and seriousness of spinal cord injury cases will require a combination of expert medical care and rehabilitation as well as award-winning legal counsel with the ability to seek and obtain all forms of deserved compensation. To help you make a decision on who you wish to represent you, Boulton Law Group offers all spinal cord injury vitcims and their families a Zero Fee Guarantee.
This means that you will NEVER be charged a consultation fee, and the only way Boulton Law Group receives payment is after we win your case.
To speak to attorney Boulton, you can call him direct at 317-350-2680, or you may write to us using our confidential contact form.