Dr. Shalini Selvarajah, a post-doctoral surgical research fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, said the rates of these injuries -- whose symptoms range from temporary numbness to full-blown paralysis -- were rising fastest among older people, suggesting preventing falls could significantly curb spinal injuries.
"We have demonstrated how costly traumatic spinal cord injury is and how lethal and disabling it can be among older people," Selvarajah, the study leader, said in a statement. "It's an area that is ripe for prevention."
Selvarajah and colleagues analyzed data from 43,137 adults treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms for spinal cord injury from 2007 to 2009. While the incidence among those ages 18 to 64 ranged from 52.3 per million in 2007 to 49.9 per million in 2009, the incidence per million in those 65 and older increased from 79.4 in 2007 to 87.7 in 2009.
Falls were the leading cause of traumatic spinal cord injury over the three-year study period at 41.5 percent, followed by motor vehicle crashes at 35.5 percent. Fall-related spinal cord injuries increased during the study period overall. Among the elderly, they increased from 23.6 percent to 30 percent of injuries.
The researchers said even when taking into account injury severity and other illnesses experienced by the patients, older adults with traumatic spinal cord injury were four times more likely to die in the emergency room from such an injury compared with younger adults. If they survive and are admitted, they are six times more likely to die during their hospital stay.
The findings were published online in the Journal of Neurotrauma.