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Spinal Cord Injury Causes

Causes of spinal cord injuries, such as car accidents, truck accidents, medical complications, and slips and falls, result in bruising or tearing that may have damaging and long-term effects on your body’s ability to function fully. Damage to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of the spinal column can also be categorized as a spinal cord injury. Non-traumatic spinal cord injury causes include arthritis, cancer, disk degeneration, inflammation, and spinal cord infection following surgery.

A woman on clutches being assisted by a nurse

Your spinal cord is one of the most critical parts of your body. The spinal cord is a series of nerves running from the base of your skull down the center of your back. It is surrounded by 33 bones called vertebrae that help to protect it. The nerves in your spinal cord send signals from your brain throughout your body to control body movements and functions, manage your reflexes, and report senses, such as pain, to your brain.

Spinal cord injuries usually result in serious changes to your body’s strength, sensation, and ability to function fully. 

Additionally, a spinal cord injury can often create stress and anxiety, negatively affecting your mental and emotional well-being. And in worst-case scenarios, spinal cord injury can cause permanent disability and death in adults and children.

What Are the Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries?

Traumatic injuries to the spinal cord occur when there is trauma or impact resulting in the spinal cord being bruised or torn. Non-traumatic spinal cord injuries result from certain diseases and post-operative infections. Although spinal cord injuries can have many causes, certain events or activities are higher risk.

Motor Vehicle Accidents

Based on data from the National Spinal Cord Injury Database, the most common cause of spinal cord injuries is motor vehicle accidents. Motor vehicle accidents cause over 31 percent of all spinal cord injuries.

However, motor vehicle accidents become the second most common cause of spinal cord injury once a person reaches 45 years of age. The data show that motor vehicle accidents caused around 17.4 percent of spinal cord injuries among people 61 years old or older but 38.4 percent among people between the ages of 16 to 30.

Causing close to 7 percent of spinal cord injuries, motorcycle crashes are another common cause of spinal cord injury. Motorcycle crashes are also the third most common cause of spinal cord injuries in people between the ages of 31 and 60. Motorcycle crashes also tend to cause spinal cord injuries in slightly more men than women.

Slips and Falls

Slips and falls are the second most common cause of spinal cord injuries, but they are the most common cause for older adults and seniors. Slips and falls can occur for many reasons, such as falling on ice or snow, down stairs, over furniture, or from buildings.

The incidence of spinal cord injuries is significantly higher among older adults, with about 75 percent of spinal cord injuries occurring in people aged 76 or older. Studies suggest that most falls among older populations occur within their homes. This has led to many discussions about how to improve home safety for seniors to potentially prevent or reduce the risk of falling.

Removing clutter, providing adequate lighting, and installing handrails are among the recommendations to prevent older individuals from falling at home and potentially sustaining a spinal cord injury. 

Workplace falls are another common cause of spinal cord injuries, especially for people between the ages of 16 and 45. Most falls in the workplace tend to be related to falling off equipment or from buildings. These tend to be falls from greater heights, so they often have severe consequences.

Other common causes of slips and falls causes include:

  • Slipping on snow or ice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around a million people are injured every year from slipping or falling on snow or ice.
  • Sidewalk failures. Hazardous conditions on sidewalks, such as potholes, large cracks, uneven surfaces, and obstructions, commonly cause people to slip or fall.
  • Indoor flooring. Flooring that is not installed correctly often has uneven or frequently changing surfaces, which creates a fall hazard.
  • Parking lots. Poorly maintained parking lots are usually full of potholes, cracks, rocks, and other hazards that can cause you to fall and injure yourself.
  • Poor lighting. Areas that are not lit well can make it difficult to see or identify obstacles in front of you, creating a hazard for tripping and falling over something you did not expect.

Gunshot and Stab Wounds

Gunshot wounds, stab wounds, and other similar acts of violence make up around 12 percent of all spinal cord injury causes, which makes them the third most common cause of spinal cord injuries. These injuries occur when a bullet or knife penetrates the body and cuts or damages the spinal cord. 

Unfortunately, gunshot and stab wounds are the second leading cause of spinal cord injury in young people between the ages of 16 and 30. Race and ethnicity also play a part here, as gunshot wounds disproportionately affect Black Americans and are the number one cause of spinal cord injuries for that demographic.

Sports Injuries

Spinal cord injuries resulting from a sport or recreational activity have stayed relatively steady for the last decade after gradually decreasing for several decades prior. Still, sporting injuries remain a common cause, comprising around 10 percent of spinal cord injuries.

Some of the common sports and activities that can lead to a spinal cord injury include: 

  • Diving, especially into shallow water.
  • Cheerleading, often during flips or falls
  • Football and ice hockey because of heavy physical contact or a lack of proper safety equipment
  • Skiing/snowboarding, especially losing control or colliding with trees, people, or other objects

Medical Complications

Unfortunately, medical or surgical complications occur, and they can sometimes cause a spinal cord injury. A little over 4 percent of all spinal cord injuries are caused by a medical or surgical complication. In particular, medical and surgical complications were the second highest cause for children younger than 16 and the third most common cause for people over age 60.

Depending on the condition and its severity, some medical conditions can cause spinal cord injuries. Diseases, such as cancer, osteoporosis, and arthritis, can lead to a spinal cord injury, as can medical conditions that impact the spine, such as a herniated disk or scoliosis.

Surgeons should always monitor the spinal cord and protect it from injury during and after surgery. However, sometimes complications during surgery or infections of the spine after surgery do occur, and surgeons make mistakes that can lead to a spinal cord injury.

Birth Injuries

Birth injuries still occur despite technological advances, and when they do, they can have lasting and long-term adverse effects. A traumatic or difficult delivery can lead to a neonatal spinal cord injury in some situations. 

Other scenarios with a risk for injury include if the baby is in a breech presentation, has their head bent backward during birth, or weighs more than eight pounds. While rare, spinal cord birth injuries can be severe or even fatal. And non-fatal injuries can lead to long-term health conditions, such as breathing difficulties, limb or muscle weakness, or paralysis.

Most signs of a spinal cord injury in a baby are visible immediately, but in some cases, it can take several days for all symptoms to appear fully.

Workplace Accidents

Accidents in the workplace can lead to severe injuries, especially in jobs involving manual labor or machinery use. Some examples of workplace accidents that can lead to injury include:

  • Exposure to toxic chemicals
  • Electrocution
  • Falls from scaffolding
  • Defective equipment or machinery
  • Negligence of another employee or subcontractor
  • Dangerous property conditions

Risk Factors

Spinal cord injuries do not always result from an accident or other physical impact. In some cases, they can also be caused by certain factors predisposing an individual to a higher risk of spinal cord injury.

According to Mayo Clinic, risk factors include:


Spinal cord injuries significantly affect more men than women, with women only making up about 20 percent of spinal cord injuries in the United States.


More than half of all spinal cord injuries occur in people between the ages of 16 and 30. Older adults over age 65 are also at a higher risk. This is likely due to the increased risk of slipping and falling as you age.

Alcohol consumption

Alcohol consumption is involved in about 25 percent of traumatic spinal cord injuries.

Lifestyle factors

Certain high-risk activities or behaviors may increase your chances of a spinal cord injury. These include participating in high-contact sports without wearing the proper safety gear, driving erratically or on a motorcycle, and diving in shallow water.

Certain medical conditions or diseases

Some medical conditions, such as scoliosis, osteoporosis, and arthritis, can impact your spine and potentially cause a spinal cord injury. 

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Injuries

The symptoms you might face from a spinal cord injury — and their severity — can vary depending on where exactly on your spine you were injured. Additionally, your symptoms might not all appear at once, and, in some cases, you might not start experiencing any symptoms until days after your injury.

When the spinal cord is injured, it often is initially in a state of shock. This may cause you to experience a loss or decrease in feeling, muscle movement, and reflexes. As your body begins to heal from the injury and the swelling goes down, new symptoms you did not previously have may start to become noticeable. 

Usually, injuries on the upper end of your spine will be more severe than injuries to your lower spine. Injuries to the upper half of your spine may affect your respiratory muscles and ability to breathe. Injuries to the lower half of your spine may affect nerve and muscle control of your bladder, bowel, legs, and sexual functions.

The most common symptoms of a spinal cord injury include the following:

  • Weakness in your arms or legs
  • Decreased sensation in your arms or legs
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Lumps on your spine
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain

More severe spinal injuries may result in some form of paralysis or a loss of certain bodily functions. The two most common forms of paralysis are quadriplegia and paraplegia.

  • Quadriplegia is the loss of function in the arms and legs.
  • Paraplegia is the loss of function in the legs and lower body.

The impact of your injury and the damage it causes to your spinal cord may also determine whether the injury is complete or incomplete. A complete injury means there is no movement or feeling below the location of the injury. An incomplete injury refers to one in which there is still some feeling or movement below the injury’s location.

When To See a Doctor

Sustaining a spinal cord injury, including injury to your head or neck, is incredibly serious, so it’s important to consult your doctor right away to seek a medical evaluation.

It is also important to remember that the effects of a spinal cord injury might not always be immediate or noticeable at the time right after the injury occurs, so treatment is critical in identifying the extent and severity of the injury and determining the best steps toward recovery.

Preventing a Spinal Cord Injury

Despite the many potential causes of a spinal cord injury, there are some things you can do to prevent an injury to your spinal cord.

Mayo Clinic’s Tips for Preventing Injury to the Spinal Cord