Spinal Cord Injuries from Falls: How they happen and what to do

Northwestern Medicine
Neurosciences December 05, 2017

The fall in temperature this time of year creates hazardous conditions for another type of fall—ice, snow and other wintery elements pose a danger for spinal cord injuries as a result of slips and falls.

Falls account for a whopping 30 percent of all spinal cord injuries, second only to motor vehicle accidents. “This is a big concern during winter weather, especially for the elderly,” said Anita Kou, MD, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Northwestern Medicine. “Anyone with impaired movement, balance or reflexes might not be able to catch themselves with their arms, elbows or knees, meaning the first thing to hit the ground could be someone’s head, causing a concussion and potentially a spinal cord injury.”

Arthritis is an additional risk factor for spinal cord injuries from falls, due to more brittle bones and joints with weaker resiliency. Age and severity of injury can impact recovery outcomes, but Dr. Kou says that regardless of those factors, some degree of recovery can be possible.

While Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital sees patients of all ages in its Spinal Cord Injury Program, the program’s senior citizen population increases more rapidly in the winter months. According to Dr. Kou, early admission into rehabilitation is key for long-term spinal cord injury recovery.

“Increasingly, research indicates that acute inpatient rehabilitation as soon as possible is crucial to the health of patients with spinal cord injuries,” said Dr. Kou. Because the spine is central to the body’s function, an injury to it impacts everything, not just paralysis of voluntary muscles—including the skin, breathing and other organ function. “Even if we cannot start working on ambulation right away, early education is important to manage altered bodily functions, including the bladder and pain,” said Dr. Kou.

New spinal cord injuries in America have increased to 17,500 this year—nearly 2,000 more than last year. While there still remains no cure for spinal cord injuries, advancements in rehabilitative technology has been instrumental in improving quality of life.

“With robotic exoskeletons, like the ones we have at Marianjoy, I have seen significant recovery for some of our patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries in their ability to walk,” said Dr. Kou. “I am looking forward to seeing the continued advancements rehabilitative technology brings to physical medicine and rehabilitation, as innovations develop.”

As for how to prevent falls in the first place—not much has changed in that arena. Dr. Kou advises safety practices such as making sure to hold railings on stairways in the winter, as steps may be slippery or icy, even if you can’t see them. Good, stable footwear for the outdoors is also important, featuring things like treaded soles.

“Even though you may be tempted to rush during the holidays, it’s worth it to take the extra time to make sure your walkway is safe and your footing stable—it’s a decision that could affect you for the rest of your life,” said Dr. Kou.

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