spinal cord injury

A spinal cord injury is damage to a part of the spinal cord or nerves of the spinal cord.

Approximately 20,800 Australians1 are living with spinal cord injury (SCI). These injuries are mainly the result of a traumatic cause and primarily affect people under the age of 65.

Traumatic spinal cord injury may occur with a sudden blow or cut to the spine and may result in permanent loss of strength, sensation and function below the site of injury as the connection to the brain, which controls movement and function, is impacted.

In South Australia, there were a total of 187 new incidents of traumatic spinal cord injury in 2017-18 for people aged 15 or over. Of these cases, 176 resulted in a persisting traumatic spinal cord injury, two died and eight had no long-term permanent disability.

1These and the following statistics are the most recent available as at January 2024.

Causes of spinal cord injury in Australia

46% of spinal cord injuries in Australia during 2017-18 were caused during transport crashes involving motor vehicle occupants and unprotected land transport users, including motorcyclists, pedestrians, pedal cyclists and quad bikes.

Approximately one in three (29%) of total traumatic SCI were unprotected land transport users.

Falls contributed to 36% of all traumatic SCI cases, with high falls accounting for 21% and low falls accounting for 14% of cases. 7% were water-related, from being dumped by a wave or diving/jumping into shallow water. 1% were from football, including rugby codes.

41% of spinal cord injuries result from non-traumatic causes which cause damage to the spine over time. These include tumours and degenerative disorders and are more prevalent in those over 65 with SCI.

Demographics affected by traumatic SCI

80% of cases of spinal cord injury from traumatic causes across Australia in 2017-18 were male, with 21% of cases being males aged 25-34. The next most numerous group was cases aged 55-64, which comprised 32 (18%) of the total cases reported.

How does a spinal cord injury impact an individual?

A spinal cord injury has a life-changing and devastating impact. One-third of Australians with a spinal cord injury have a severe SCI, resulting in no movement in the impacted areas of their body.

Limited mobility following SCI affects independence, and can impair bodily functions such as breathing, digestion and sexual function. People living with SCI often require substantial support and assistance with daily activities, impacting their ability to work or type of work, as well as their overall health and well-being.

Levels of injury

Just over half (55%) of traumatic SCI cases sustained injury to the cervical spine, resulting in tetraplegia or quadriplegia.

Tetraplegia: paralysis where movement and feeling are affected in all four limbs and the main body. Tetraplegia may include loss of sensation, movement or function of the head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, upper chest, pelvic organs and legs.

The level of injury (where the injury is located along the spine) is from the C1 vertebrae to the T1 vertebrae.

Paraplegia: paralysis where movement and feeling are affected in the lower limbs. Paraplegia may include loss of movement and feeling in the legs, stomach, chest, hips and feet.

The level of injury (spinal injury location) is from the T2 vertebrae to the S5 vertebrae.

Spinal cord injuries are categorised using the ASIA Impairment Scale. Total paralysis (Grade A or B) is where there is no movement and no or some sensory function. Partial paralysis is where there is some muscle function (less than 50% is Grade C, more than 50% is Grade D).

The impact on a person’s life where partial paralysis occurs is still high.

Health consequences of spinal cord injury

A spinal cord injury has a lasting health impact beyond loss of movement and sensation. Lack of mobility can also contribute to pressure sores, osteoporosis and poor circulation.

80% of people with SCI experience a lack of bladder or bowel control, 70% suffer from chronic pain for more than 6 months and 40% of people hospitalised with SCIs have respiratory failure.

In addition to the physical impacts, mental health impacts can include post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Chronic pain is a key contributor to depression.

Our spinal cord injury nurses are experts in guiding those living with spinal cord injury to improve their quality of life and health outcomes. We also provide specialist social counselling for people living with spinal cord injury.

Families of people living with a spinal cord injury

Families of people with a spinal cord injury experience increased stress from the emotional consequences of seeing a loved one seriously injured. There is a significant financial impact and additional caring responsibilities.

We invite the friends and family of a loved one with spinal cord injury to attend our supportive and inclusive ‘Take some time out’ dinners, where you can connect with others and relate your experiences.

The costs of spinal cord injury

Federal and state government funding covers a percentage of the direct costs that result from a spinal cord injury. However, there is a gap that individuals must pay, either out of pocket or by a private insurer.

The direct costs of spinal cord injury include formal and informal care and both initial and ongoing medical treatment. Informal care provided by family and friends is unpaid and there is a flow-on effect on career trajectory with time taken off work for both the person with spinal cord injury and their family who take time to care for them.

The indirect costs of a spinal cord injury include lower employment and underemployment, loss of well-being and premature death, which may bring funeral costs forward. If a person cannot work due to a period of poor health, household expenses, food, care and medical costs still accrue.

The social impact of spinal cord injury can extend to family members, including partners and children, where accessibility to homes of friends and buildings where community activities occur limits social interaction and extracurricular activities such as sports or music.

Our role in supporting South Australians with spinal cord injury

estara plays a central role in supporting people living with spinal cord injury to live fulfilling lives, providing expert services like in-home support, supported independent living and specialist spinal cord injury services.

Beyond these services, our purpose as a non-profit organisation includes filling the gaps where federal and state government funding does not provide for support and community connection.

Our social impacts are provided free of charge and include:

  • Grants to fund equipment that allow people to live independently or remain at home
  • Scholarships for education in a chosen career path
  • Accessibility initiatives in the community, from beach access to golf access and more
  • Support networks for both people living with SCI and their families and friends
  • Advocacy to raise awareness of the need for an inclusive community.

Research to improve outcomes after spinal cord injury

There is no current cure for spinal cord injury. Treatment focuses on stabilising the spine, supportive care, addressing complications and rehabilitation, which includes physical therapy, occupational therapy and counselling.

However, new treatments are being developed and tested in clinical trials. These include integrated approaches to regain mobility, reduce chronic pain or control over functions such as bladder and bowel.

Key areas of research include:

  • Neuroprotection: early intervention therapies to prevent cell death and limit damage to the spine
  • Neuromodulation: Epidural or transcutaneous electrical stimulation of the spinal cord
  • Neuroregeneration: Therapies that focus on regrowth of damaged neurons for long-term chronic injuries
  • Biomaterials: Biomaterials such as neuro-spinal scaffolds and others provide structural support or delivery channels for therapies that promote axonal growth.

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Other organisations that support people living with spinal cord injury