Catastrophic Spinal Injuries Explained

The spinal cord can sustain injury in many different types of accidents, including car accidents and slip and falls. Depending on the severity of the accident, a victim may have to live with the symptoms and effects of a spinal cord injury for the rest of his or her life. In the worst cases, a spinal cord injury can result in paralysis, or permanent loss of function and feeling below the point of injury, or death. In a legal context, these are known as catastrophic spinal injuries.

What Is a Catastrophic Spinal Injury? 

In personal injury law, the term “catastrophic” refers to an injury with direct and proximate consequences that permanently prevent an individual from performing any gainful work (per 42 USC § 3796b). In other words, it is an injury that is severe enough to leave the victim with permanent impairment or disability.

A catastrophic spinal injury specifically refers to a severe injury involving the spinal cord or any of its components, including the vertebrae, discs and nerves. The spinal cord is responsible for transferring messages from the body to the brain. When the spinal cord sustains serious harm, this messaging system can be permanently disrupted. This can cause irreversible, lifelong paralysis below the point of injury.

Types of Spinal Cord Injuries  

The back, neck and spine can suffer many different types of injuries that affect a victim’s nervous system, neurological function and motor function. Paralysis of all four limbs and the trunk of the body, known as quadriplegia, is the most catastrophic type of spinal injury. Quadriplegia is often caused by injury to the top of the spine, or the cervical vertebrae. Paraplegia is another type of paralysis. It refers to the loss of motor function and sensation from the waist down. 

Paraplegia may or may not affect a victim’s bowel and bladder control and sexual function. Paraplegia can be caused by damage to the middle of the back or lower spine, also known as the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. Other types of paralysis that can be caused by catastrophic spinal injuries are monoplegia (paralysis in a single limb), hemiplegia (paralysis on one side of the body), and Brown-Sequard syndrome (paralysis on one side of the body and a loss of sensation on the opposite side).

Emergency Signs of a Catastrophic Spinal Injury

What an accident victim does immediately after suffering a spinal cord injury could potentially prevent catastrophic damage. Immediately immobilizing the spinal cord can protect it from sustaining further injury, possibly preventing a moderate spinal cord injury from becoming severe or catastrophic. If a victim believes that he or she has sustained an injury to the spine in an accident, he or she should call 911 and restrict movement until paramedics arrive.

The emergency signs of a catastrophic spinal cord injury can include extreme pain in the neck or back, a feeling of pressure in the head or spine, weakness or incoordination, paralysis in any part of the body, numbness or a loss of sensation in the extremities, tingling in the fingers or toes, loss of bowel or bladder control, trouble with balance or walking, and impaired breathing. These signs mean that the victim needs to immediately get medical attention.

The Long-Term Effects of a Catastrophic Spinal Injury 

The nature of a catastrophic spinal injury typically means that a victim will suffer lifelong effects. With quadriplegia, for example, a victim typically cannot live on his or her own and may require around-the-clock care, especially if paralysis affects the victim’s respiratory system. Victims who are diagnosed with any type of paralysis may need to rely on medical assistive devices, such as a wheelchair, to get around. Most spinal cord injury victims also require ongoing medical care, including medications, physical therapy and rehabilitation. 

If you or someone you love has suffered a catastrophic spinal injury, contact a Kansas City personal injury lawyer at Dickerson Oxton to discuss the possibility of filing a personal injury claim. You may be entitled to financial compensation for your life-changing injury.