The spine is not just one long bone going from your neck to your waist; it has many different sections and each one controls the functions of a different part of the body. When the spinal cord is injured, the consequences can be disastrous. There are 17,000 new cases of spinal cord injury (SCI) each year in the U.S., and it is the cause of many missed work days, lost wages and high medical bills for many Americans. When it happens as a result of someone else’s negligence, being fairly compensated can be just as long of a process as the recovery. An experienced Chula Vista spinal cord injury attorney can help.
What Is a Spinal Cord Injury?
The spine is an incredibly nuanced and complicated part of the body that one has to study their whole lives to be an expert in it, and even then it might not be enough. Basically, the spine, along with the brain, more or less controls every function your body ever has. These are the different parts of the spinal cord:
- Cervical Cord – Contains the C-1 vertebrae through C-8 cord, and it supplies the nerves for the deltoids, biceps, triceps, wrist extensors and hands. The C-1 is known as the “Atlas” because it supports the globe of the head. The cervical cord is located in the neck, and damage here is usually the culprit for many types of paralysis.
- Thoracic Cord – Located in the upper to middle back, it contains the T-1 through T-12 vertebrae. One rib is connected firmly on each side of every vertebrae, and it provides protection for vital organs such as the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. Damage here can be caused by injury or osteoporosis, and symptoms include numbness, tingling or weakness in the limbs.
- Lumbosacral Cord – This consists of five lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum, which is five bones joined together. Injuries here are common. Many have likely heard of sciatica, and it involves damage to the L3, L4 or L5 vertebrae, which affects hip and leg movement. It may also cause numbness which extends all the way down to the feet.
A back injury does not necessarily mean you’ve suffered a SCI, and it’s possible to break your back or your neck and not suffer a spinal cord injury. Seeking care as early as possible after an injury is incredibly important, so that complete recovery remains possible. The effects of a SCI injury are numerous and they include chronic pain, low blood pressure, bladder dysfunction and the inability to sweat below the point of injury. The effect from an injury is different depending upon where on the spine it occurs.
What Are the Different Severities of a Spinal Cord Injury?
Obviously with so many different parts of the spine, an injury to one part of it means something very different than an injury to another. A SCI in the neck is usually traumatic and has lifelong effects, while injuries to the lumbar region can usually be treated with drugs or physical therapy. Even the difference in injury effects from one vertebra to the next is huge.
- Cervical Cord injury – If an injury occurs in the C-1 through C-4 section, that person usually loses all mobility in their arms and legs, and becomes a quadriplegic (loses function in arms and legs). It’s also quite likely that the person will need to use a ventilator, probably for an extended period of time, as breathing becomes extremely difficult. Damage to each vertebra from C-5 through C-8 is tetraplegia and it involves different abilities of future function:
- C-5 injury: Relearn to flex elbows, groom and feed themselves. However, someone with damage here would likely need a caregiver for the rest of their lives to assist in bathing, dressing and going to the bathroom.
- C-6 injury: Can generally relearn to do everything a healthy human can, but assistive devices for driving, bathing, grooming and feeding themselves. They can use the elbow and wrist but need help gripping things.
- C-7 injury: Some will need assistive devices to write, type and answer the phone. They can extend the elbows but may have trouble gripping things. Otherwise people with this injury can live independently.
- C-8 injury: Complete independent living is possible; everything from going to the bathroom to dressing can be done without assistance, and driving is possible in a car adapted with hand controls.
- Thoracic Cord injury – Injuries to the T-1 through T-12 vertebra are generally less varied – all involve paraplegia to some degree – but the effect on the person’s ability to function in the future does depend on where exactly the injury occurs.
- T-1 through T-4 injury: Quadriplegia is still possible with a T-1 injury, but T-2 or below and the worst it can possibly be is paraplegia. Someone with an injury to this region should still be able to have normal function for the most part. They’ll have full use of arm, chest and upper back muscles, but partial household assistance may be required and breathing fully could be compromised.
- T-5 through T-9: The lower the injury is, the more mobility and strength a person will have, but a manual wheelchair will likely still be required. They can drive a modified hand-controlled car and some can even walk with braces.
- T-10 through T-12: Normal breathing, eating and upper body function, but there will likely be partial paralysis in the legs.
- Lumbar/Sacral injury – A SCI to the lower back can still result in paraplegia, although many are able to walk with the help of braces. Muscle movement and strength would generally remain the same in the arms, chest and torso.
Where on the spine an injury occurs matters in terms of figuring out the severity of the injury and a recovery prognosis, but where exactly on the vertebra the injury occurs can matter just as much. There are four places on a vertebra that can sustain an injury, and different parts of the body will experience loss of function or feeling:
- Brown-Séquard Syndrome: The injury happened on one side of the vertebra, which brings paralysis on one side of the body and loss of feeling on the other below the injury level.
- Anterior Cord Syndrome: The injury occurred on the front of the vertebra, and below the injury level there is loss of pain and temperature sensation, although touch and vibratory sensations are preserved.
- Posterior Cord Syndrome: The injury occurred in the back of the vertebra, and while motor function is generally preserved, there is a loss of pressure sensation.
- Central Cord Syndrome: Just as the name describes, and it usually occurs in the Cervical region. Although some recovery is possible, the person will likely never regain complete function. There is generally complete loss of function in the arms but some leg movement.
These types of injuries involve a break, fracture or compression of one of the vertebra in the spine. Many people function normally, although in a good amount of pain, with pinched nerves and sprains, but a SCI typically proves to be debilitating in some form or another. There are many stories of people with Cervical cord injuries who learn to walk again, but rarely does that happen.
What Are the Most Common Causes of Spinal Cord Injury in Chula Vista?
While data isn’t available for Chula Vista specifically, approximately 39 percent of all new spinal cord injuries nationwide happen due to a motor vehicle accident (about seven percent of those are from motorcycle accidents), which is far and away the most common cause. Falls are the next most common cause, accounting for 29 percent of SCI. Sports injuries are not as big of a culprit of SCI as one may think, with just over eight percent in the last ten years. And contrary to popular belief, there have been 11 times the spinal cord injuries due to diving than there have been due to football. Some other facts about spinal cord injury:
- After suffering a stroke, a SCI is the second most common cause of paralysis.
- Roughly 80 percent of those living with a SCI in the U.S. are male.
- 92 percent of SCI suffered playing sports results in quadriplegia.
- The average length of stay in the hospital, including initial care and subsequent recovery, is 46 days.
- The cost of an SCI is very high: A high tetraplegia (C-1 to C-4) injury is the most costly, and will average almost $1.1 million in the first year, and $185,000 each year after that.
Once a person suffers a spinal cord injury, there is usually one thought which prevails above all others: will I be able to walk again?
What Are the Chances of Recovery After a Spinal Cord Injury?
The chances of walking again in any capacity after a SCI really depends upon whether it is diagnosed as a complete or incomplete injury. According to the American Spinal Cord Association, a complete injury means that the person has no sensory or motor function in the perineal or anal region, which is the S-4 and S-5 of the sacral region. To put it in more succinct terms, the person has no function whatsoever below the injury level. A complete injury does not necessarily mean that the spinal cord has been severed, but clearly significant damage has been done.
Otherwise, it is diagnosed as an incomplete injury, which is broken down into three different groups depending on the severity:
- Sensory incomplete – There is some sensation at levels below the injury, including the sacral region, but for the most part there is major loss of feeling.
- Motor incomplete – While sensory function remains mostly intact, the ability to grasp with the fingers or move the arms in general is lost, and muscle function, if there is any, is weak.
- Normal – There may be some reflexive limitations, but for the most part sensory and muscle function is at full capacity.
Recovery time, or whether the person will recover at all, has to take all of these factors into account. For a cervical injury, the chances of any motor function recovery at all is less than 10 percent. Even if motor function is recovered, loss of sensory function will likely still be significant or complete. The less severe the injury – that is, the lower on the spine – the greater the chance of walking again. Motor incomplete SCI patients are given a 75 percent chance of walking again, although it will likely be with aids such as braces or crutches.
Another thing that makes a big difference is the age at which the injury occurs. Motor incomplete injuries to someone less than 50 years old has an 80 percent chance of recovery while someone older has less than half that chance. The average life expectancy, in terms of number of years survived after the accident, obviously is dependent upon the person’s age at the time of the accident as well. A 20-year old who suffers a catastrophic SCI and is ventilator dependent lives another 19 years on average. If the person is 60, they only live for another two years.
Filing a Spinal Cord Injury Lawsuit In Chula Vista
In California, the statute of limitations for any personal injury claim is two years – and spinal cord injury cases are no different, starting from the time of the accident. However, this differs a bit depending on the injured person’s age and the severity of that injury. For example, if the injury happened to someone under the age of 18, they would have until their 18th birthday plus two years to file a claim. If the claim is against a government agency, a written intent of filing a claim must be sent to them within 60 days. Exceptions can be made if the person is incapable or mentally incapacitated to file a claim.
California is a comparative negligence state, which means that if you are awarded a $100,000 settlement, but are 25 percent at fault, you would only receive $75,000 of that. You are entitled to seek compensation, not just for medical bills, but for any lost wages, happiness or consortium (18 percent of people with an SCI are no longer married five years after the fact) that the injury has caused.
When hiring a Chula Vista spinal cord injury attorney, it’s important to choose one who has experience in this specific area, rather than a general personal injury lawyer. The Law Offices of Howard Kitay not only has that experience, but the expertise to handle your spinal cord injury lawsuit. We pay attention to every detail, and we always strive for the highest compensation possible for all the pain, physical and emotional, that the injury has caused.