A spinal cord injury can disrupt every aspect of your life, from daily routines to long-term aspirations. As you consider the possibility of legal action, you’ll likely have questions about the potential value of your claim. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but by examining specific factors tied to your injury and its consequences, and consulting with a qualified spinal cord injury lawyer, you can gain clarity on what to expect.
What Is the Difference Between a Complete and Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury?
A complete spinal cord injury results in a total loss of sensation and motor function below the level of the injury. Complete spinal cord injuries damage or sever all the nerve pathways that relay messages between the brain and the parts of the body below the injury site.
As a result, individuals with these injuries cannot move or feel anything in the affected regions. For instance, if the injury occurs in the mid-back, it could lead to total paralysis in the legs (paraplegia).
On the other hand, an incomplete spinal cord injury means there’s still some degree of sensation or movement below the injury level. An incomplete spinal cord injury results in only partial damage to the nerve pathways that carry signals between the brain and the body.
Individuals with incomplete spinal injuries might retain some motor or sensory function in the affected areas. The degree of function can vary widely, with some people retaining almost full capabilities and others with extremely limited function.
What Are the Different Levels of Spinal Cord Injuries?
Doctors divide the spinal cord into distinct regions, and the location of an injury along the spinal cord determines its level. The higher up the injury occurs on the spinal cord, the more parts of the body it can affect.
Here are the four main levels of spinal cord injuries:
- Cervical Spinal Cord Injuries: The cervical region of the spinal cord is at the top of the neck. It includes eight vertebrae (C1 to C8). Cervical spinal cord injuries can result in quadriplegia, which paralyzes the arms and legs. Some of these injuries even affect the ability to breathe independently.
- Thoracic Spinal Cord Injuries: Directly below, the thoracic region spans twelve vertebrae (T1 to T12) in the upper back. Injuries to this section often lead to paraplegia, which affects the body below the chest. Though the lower body might lose function, arm and hand functions generally remain intact.
- Lumbar Spinal Cord Injuries: The lumbar region of the spinal cord is in the lower back and comprises five vertebrae (L1 to L5). When lumbar spinal cord injuries occur, they predominantly affect the function of the hips and legs, with varying degrees of impairment.
- Sacral Spinal Cord Injuries: Lastly, the sacral region of the spinal cord is at the base of the spine and consists of five vertebrae (S1 to S5). Injuries to this area primarily affect the hips, buttocks, and parts of the legs. The exact symptoms and impairments depend on the injury’s location and severity.
What Are the Common Symptoms and Long-Term Consequences of Spinal Cord Injuries?
Spinal cord injuries present a diverse range of symptoms that can affect both the body and mind.
Here are some common examples that affect patients with all types and levels of spinal cord injuries:
- Paralysis or weakness
- Loss of sensation
- Difficulty walking
- Reduced coordination or balance
- Numbness or tingling
- Pain or stinging sensations
- Loss of bladder control
- Loss of bowel control
- Difficulty breathing
- Spasms or exaggerated reflexes
- Changes in sexual function
- Loss of fertility
- Difficulty coughing or clearing the throat
- Changes in body temperature regulation
- Pressure sores
- Chronic pain
- Abnormal sweating
- Abnormal blood pressure
- Inability to feel pain or other sensations
- Muscle atrophy
- Joint stiffness
- Infections, especially urinary tract infections
- Mood changes or depression
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Difficulty with memory or concentration
Spinal cord injuries often have profound ripple effects that reach beyond these symptoms. These injuries can reshape every facet of an individual’s life, from their personal relationships to their career prospects.
Common long-term consequences include the following:
- Physical Limitations: Spinal cord injuries commonly lead to decreases in mobility and physical function. Over time, these limitations can result in secondary issues like muscle weakness and joint problems.
- Psychological and Emotional Issues: Many patients experience a profound emotional toll post-injury. It’s not uncommon for feelings of depression, anxiety, and grief to emerge as patients adapt to their new realities.
- Social Consequences: Engaging in social activities often becomes more challenging for spinal cord injury patients. Consequently, some individuals might withdraw from social circles, feeling detached or different.
- Occupational Challenges: Returning to work is difficult or impossible for many spinal cord injury patients. This often necessitates a career shift or, in some cases, extended periods of unemployment.
- Financial Strain: The costs of treatments, therapies, and adaptive equipment can add up quickly. Together with potential income losses, these costs result in significant financial challenges for many patients.
- Health Complications: Spinal cord injuries increase vulnerability to certain health issues. Recurring problems like urinary infections or pressure sores are common concerns for those with spinal cord injuries.
- Poor Sexual Health: Changes in sexual function and fertility can affect patients’ self-perception and intimate relationships.
- Loss of Independence: Many patients need assistance with daily tasks, which can impair their sense of autonomy. This newfound dependence on caregivers or family can lead to painful emotions.
How Do Doctors Treat Spinal Cord Injuries?
Spinal cord injuries present a diverse range of health challenges that require varying treatment approaches. From immediate interventions to long-term rehabilitation strategies, medical professionals utilize several techniques to promote recovery and improve the quality of life for affected individuals, such as:
Surgeons can perform procedures to remove bone fragments, foreign objects, herniated discs, or fractured vertebrae pressing on the spinal cord. Surgery can also stabilize the spine and prevent additional damage. In some cases, doctors use metal plates, rods, or screws to hold the spine in place during the healing process.
Doctors often prescribe medications to manage the various symptoms and complications of spinal cord injuries. Pain relievers can address acute or chronic pain, while muscle relaxants can alleviate muscle spasms or tightness. Other medications can treat bladder or bowel control problems or other secondary conditions resulting from the injury.
Physical therapists work with patients to strengthen muscle function, improve mobility, and enhance coordination. They design specific exercise regimens to target affected areas, helping patients regain some lost function. Over time, physical therapy can play a key role in a patient’s ability to regain independence.
Technological advances, like functional electrical stimulation devices, help stimulate paralyzed muscles to contract. Robotic gait training and computer-assisted recovery regimens can also aid in regaining walking abilities or other functions. These technologies offer a blend of hope and practical solutions for many.
Occupational therapists help patients relearn essential daily tasks like dressing, cooking, and writing. They also provide guidance on adaptive equipment that can make life and work easier, from wheelchairs to specialized computer programs. The ultimate goal is to help individuals regain as much independence as possible.
Dealing with a spinal cord injury often triggers significant emotional and psychological challenges. Counselors and therapists offer coping strategies, provide emotional support, and help patients navigate the complex emotions that accompany such life-changing injuries.
How Much Does It Cost To Treat a Spinal Cord Injury?
In addition to profound effects on physical and emotional well-being, spinal cord injuries come with significant financial implications. Data from The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation offers valuable insights into the annual and lifetime costs of spinal cord injuries:
Average Yearly Costs
The direct yearly expenses arising from spinal cord injuries vary significantly. Factors such as the patient’s educational background, age, extent of neurological impairment, and employment history can all affect these costs. This includes direct treatment costs and indirect costs like lost income and benefits. Remarkably, these indirect costs average $71,961 annually across ages and injury levels.
Here is a breakdown of potential yearly treatment costs, based on injury severity, for the first year and each subsequent year of living with a spinal cord injury:
- High Tetraplegia: Initial costs in the first year average $1,064,716. The expenses for each subsequent year average around $184,891.
- Low Tetraplegia: The first year averages costs of approximately $769,351, and each following year costs around $113,423.
- Paraplegia: Initial yearly costs for this category average $518,904. Each subsequent year costs an average of $68,739.
- Incomplete Motor Function (at any level): The financial burden in the first year averages $347,484, with each following year costing around $42,206.
Estimated Lifetime Costs
When we extend our perspective to estimate the potential lifetime costs of SCIs, the figures are even more telling.
Based on the patient’s age at the onset of injury:
- High Tetraplegia: For a 25-year-old, the estimated lifetime cost is $4,724,181. For someone who is 50 at the time of injury, the lifetime average cost is $2,596,329.
- Low Tetraplegia: A 25-year-old faces an estimated lifetime cost of $3,451,781. A 50-year-old with the same condition would pay $2,123,154.
- Paraplegia: The estimated lifetime cost for a 25-year-old is $2,310,104, and for a 50-year-old, it’s around $1,516,052.
- Incomplete Motor Function (any level): For a 25-year-old, the lifetime cost is $1,578,274. For a 50-year-old, the estimate is $1,113,990.
What Compensation Can You Get for a Spinal Cord Injury Case?
If you sustain a spinal cord injury, your lawyer can help you claim monetary compensation for any personal and financial losses you incur as a result.
Depending on the circumstances, you could demand compensation for the following types of injury-related losses:
- Medical expenses
- Transportation costs related to the injury
- Rehabilitation costs
- Assistive device and modification costs
- Future medical and care expenses
- Lost income
- Loss of earning capacity
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
- Loss of consortium
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Disfigurement or permanent disability
- Home modification costs (e.g., wheelchair ramps)
- Vocational retraining costs
- Costs of in-home care or facility care
Factors That Could Affect the Value of a Spinal Cord Injury Case
Every spinal cord injury case is unique, with numerous factors that interact in complex ways to determine the case’s overall value.
An attorney can help you examine how each of the following factors applies to your situation to reach a reliable estimate for your case value:
- Injury Severity: The more severe your injury, the higher the potential compensation available for your claim.
- Medical Care Costs: You’ll need to account for past, current, and projected future medical bills to determine the full value of your claim.
- Income Losses: If your injury prevents you from working, either now or in the future, this lost income will significantly influence your claim’s value.
- Life Care Costs: The costs of any necessary ongoing care like physical therapy, counseling, or in-home care could increase your claim value.
- Age: Your age could influence the available compensation, with younger individuals potentially receiving more due to the longer expected duration of suffering and greater future income loss.
- Effect on Quality of Life: If the injury disrupts your daily activities, hobbies, or relationships, your claim is worth more.
- Insurance Policy Limits: If you have a claim against another party’s insurance, their policy limits might cap your available compensation.
- Evidence and Liability: If you have strong evidence that clearly shows another party’s fault, it could boost your case’s value.
The best way to maximize the potential value of your spinal cord injury case is to work with a knowledgeable personal injury attorney. Your lawyer can identify all possible sources of compensation, stand up for your rights, and demand meaningful results.