Many people understand that the primary symptom of a spinal cord injury is loss of sensation and function below the site of the injury, a condition known as paralysis. However, what is not always equally understood is the impacts this paralysis can have on a person's life, both from a physical standpoint and a psychological one.
There is a reason that spinal cord injuries are considered catastrophic, as negative impacts on the sufferer's ability to earn an income and accomplish regular daily living tasks are high. The chances of recovering from the injury are low.
How Does a Spinal Cord Injury Cause Paralysis?
The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that extends from the base of the skull to the waist area and is protected by the spine's bones. The spinal cord and the brain make up the body's central nervous system, with the cord acting as a messenger, relaying signals from the brain to other parts of the body. Spinal cord injuries result most often from falls or motor vehicle accidents.
Contrary to popular belief, most spinal cord injuries do not feature a cord that has been severed but rather one that has been bruised and damaged. Unfortunately, the spinal cord is extremely limited in its ability to heal from damage, often resulting in permanent paralysis.
A disruption in the ability of the spinal cord to relay signals from the brain to the body caused paralysis. The amount of the body affected by paralysis generally depends more on the area where the injury occurred than on the severity of the injury.
Those who suffer an injury to the cervical (neck) area of the spinal cord will experience paralysis throughout their body, including the chest, abdomen, shoulders, arms, pelvis, legs, and feet. This level of paralysis is known as tetraplegia and is also commonly referred to as quadriplegia.
Those with injuries occurring lower on the spine generally experience paralysis in the lower extremities, including the hips, pelvis, legs, and feet. This level of paralysis is known as paraplegia.
What Types of Daily Living Tasks Does Paralysis Prevent?
Those who suffer paralysis are likely to experience significant impacts on their daily lives.
Paraplegia sufferers often deal with effects such as:
- The inability to walk unassisted. This can result in the need to move to a home that features single-level living and to make modifications to the home to accommodate the use of a wheelchair, such as roll-in showers and lowered counters.
- The inability to drive without vehicle modifications such as hand controls for brakes and acceleration
- The inability to work at a job that requires standing or lifting
- The sufferer cannot participate in hobbies and previously enjoyed activities, such as hiking, bicycling, or dancing.
- Changes to relationships with family members and friends Family members often bear the brunt of caregiving tasks for the injured party and experience the loss of other essential parts of the relationship, such as the loss of companionship and consortium suffered by the injured party's spouse.
- The need for regular medical treatment for the injury and its associated complications can limit the amount of traveling that the injured party can do and necessitate living close to the hospital.
The impacts are even more significant for those who suffer from tetraplegia as they cannot use their arms or legs.
These impacts can include:
- The inability to earn an income
- The inability to live independently as assistance is needed to perform any daily living task. Those suffering from tetraplegia often reside in long-term care facilities, which can be extremely expensive. A bed in a long-term care facility in Illinois will cost around $6,235 a month.
- Frequent hospitalizations to treat severe complications such as pneumonia and burns from contact with hot surfaces
- Frequent urinary tract infections resulting from complications affecting the bladder and bowel systems that can result in septicemia
- The need to be moved frequently and to have one's clothing changed promptly after incontinence to prevent bed sores
- Regular physical therapy to prevent spasticity or flaccidity of the muscles
The High Price Tag for Spinal Cord Injuries
The cost of medically treating a spinal cord injury can vary widely depending on the level of paralysis resulting from the injury. According to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, health care and living expenses for those suffering from the condition are often the greatest in the first year, when those with high tetraplegia (paralysis from the neck down) can expect to pay more than $1.16 million.
Subsequent years of care for individuals with this injury level drop to around $202,000, meaning that a 25-year-old who has suffered high tetraplegia can expect to pay more than $5 million throughout their lives for medical treatment and living expenses alone.
The costs for spinal cord injury sufferers with less severe paralysis are slightly lower. However, any motor function impairment resulting from the injury brings estimated first-year costs of more than $370,000, with subsequent years' worth of treatment and living expenses ranging around $46,000 and lifetime costs of more than $1.7 million for those who incurred their injury at age 25.
A Cascade of Complications: Ongoing Medical Needs After a Spinal Cord Injury
An injury to the spinal cord is serious enough on its own. Unfortunately, the injury has a high likelihood of producing complications that can impact other organs and result in the need for additional treatment.
Some of these complications include:
- Impacts on bowel and bladder function, including incontinence and constipation
- Difficulty breathing and an increased risk of pneumonia in those who suffer paralysis to the diaphragm and have the inability to clear secretions from the lungs by coughing
- Inability to regulate blood pressure or body temperature
- Inability to feel temperature changes such as extreme hot or cold, which increases the risk of suffering burns or other injuries
- Changes in muscle tone, including spasticity, which causes the muscles to be unusually tight, or flaccidity, which causes the muscles to be limp and floppy
- Pressure ulcers (bed sores) resulting from remaining in one position too long or from contact with urine and feces as a result of incontinence
- Depression is a result of the extreme changes to the sufferer's life that are incurred due to the injury
Can Paralysis Result in Death?
The results of research conducted in Australia found that among those who survived the first year after the injury, 47 percent of spinal cord injury sufferers with tetraplegia can survive with the condition for 40 years, while those suffering from paraplegia have a 62 percent 40-year survival rate.
Paralysis can lead to several conditions that can result in death, such as:
- Pneumonia is the leading cause of death among spinal cord injury sufferers over 55, whose paralysis has affected the muscles and systems needed to breathe and expel lung excretions.
- Unintentional injuries result from the inability to feel sensations, including severe burns from the inability to feel heat.
- Suicide is a symptom of depression. Depression is a common complication faced by those who have encountered enormous life changes due to the injury.
- Sepsis is an infection that travels throughout the body's systems through the bloodstream. Severe pressure ulcer wounds commonly cause this type of infection.
Seeking Compensation After a Spinal Cord Injury
In the legal arena, spinal cord injuries caused by someone else's negligence are considered catastrophic injuries, meaning that solely due to the location on the body where the injury occurred the sufferer has a high likelihood of suffering permanent disabilities that will prevent them from earning an income.
While lawyers resolve catastrophic injury claims through the same process as other injuries, they must take special care to ensure that the settlement has a high enough value to cover a lifetime of expenses and psychological impacts.
Catastrophic Injury Claims Hinge on These Factors
In addition to having a higher value to the claim, several other factors influence the success of the claim, such as:
- The ability to prove that someone else was liable for the accident that resulted in the injury
- The availability of a liability insurance policy held by the at-fault party to compensate the claimant
- The ability to show documentation of expenses and impacts to justify the claim's high value
An experienced spinal cord injury lawyer is equipped to handle these factors, assisting in determining liability and insurance, communicating with the insurance provider to negotiate a settlement, and gathering the evidence and documentation necessary to prove liability and expenses.
Liability refers to the legal responsibility that an individual has to compensate others for harm that they caused through reckless or careless actions.
To show who caused the accident that caused your spinal cord injury, you must satisfy these three elements:
- Duty. The at-fault party needed to take reasonable actions to protect others from harm.
- Breach. The duty the at-fault party owed was breached when they took careless or reckless actions contrary to the need to protect others from harm.
- Cause. The carelessness or recklessness of the at-fault party resulted in an accident in which you suffered a spinal cord injury.
The Compensation Available Through a Spinal Cord Injury Claim
Individuals who have suffered a spinal cord injury and are seeking compensation through the personal injury claims process can pursue compensation for:
- The expenses they incurred as a result of the accident, including all reasonable medical treatment for the injury and associated complications; wage loss; loss of earning capacity as the result of the permanent disability incurred as a result of the injury; and property damage that was sustained by the claimant in the same accident that caused their injury. This type of compensation is commonly referred to as economic damages.
- The significant psychological impacts incurred from the accident include physical pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.
Affording an Experienced Spinal Cord Injury Attorney
Hiring an attorney to assist with a personal injury claim often causes extreme reluctance, primarily because most people do not think they can afford to pay for an attorney's services. However, the contingent fee billing method used by personal injury attorneys ensures that anyone who needs a personal injury attorney's help has access to them, regardless of current financial service.
When you hire a personal injury attorney, you will sign a contingent fee agreement with them. This agreement allows you to withhold payment for the attorney's services until compensation has been received for your claim, either through a negotiated settlement or a court award.
After your case, the attorney will receive your compensation and be paid for their services. You do not need a retainer or an upfront investment, and you do not have to worry about keeping up with hourly billing. You can have peace of mind knowing that they are working hard on your claim and will not get paid for their efforts until you get paid.
Did you or your loved one suffer a spinal cord injury caused by someone else's negligence? Contact a spinal cord injury attorney for your free case evaluation.