Between 2008–09 and 2012–13, just over 1,200 people aged 15 and older sustained a traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) and were admitted to a specialist spinal unit (SU) in an Australian hospital. Nearly all cases (96%) resulted in a persisting traumatic SCI.

In this 5-year period, the highest number of persisting traumatic SCI for Australian residents discharged alive was 255 cases in 2010–11 (22% of the 5-year total), and the lowest number was in 2011–12 (201 cases, or 18%).

Over the 5-year period, the age-standardised incidence rate for Australian residents aged 15 and older and discharged alive with persisting traumatic SCI fell from 14.0 cases per million residents in 2008–09 to 12.2 cases per million residents in 2012–13.

Overall, cases of persisting traumatic SCI among Australian male residents aged 15 and older, discharged alive, far outnumbered female cases. The ratio was roughly constant across the 5-year timespan, at about 4 male cases to 1 female case each year.

A third or more of persisting traumatic SCI cases each year were discharged with incomplete tetraplegia (the neurological impairment of sensory and/or motor function loss at 1 of cervical spine levels C1–C8, with some function preserved below that level). Another 12% to 17% per year sustained a complete injury at the cervical level (that is, no sensory or motor function preserved at S4–S5). Complete paraplegia at the thoracic level was the second most common neurological impairment at discharge, overall, for each of the 5 years. A complete injury at the lumbosacral level was uncommon, with only 2% reported for the 5-year period.

The most severe injuries (complete injury at the cervical level or complete tetraplegia) resulted in the longest median lengths of stay (LOS) in a SU. In 2008–09, the median LOS for complete tetraplegia was 227 days, while in 2012–13, it was 179 days.

Causes of spinal cord injury

Land transport crashes contributed to more than 2 in 5 (43%) of SCI cases during this 5-year period. Of these, 53% were Unprotected land transport users, including motor and pedal cyclists, quad-bike riders and pedestrians.

A High fall (from a height greater than 1 metre) contributed to 20% of all traumatic SCI causes for the 5-year period, while Low falls (on the same level, from less than 1 metre or from an unspecified height) accounted for 16%. Eight per cent of traumatic SCI cases overall were due to a Water-related event such as diving into shallow water or being dumped by a wave. A further 3% were injured by a Heavy falling object, and 2% each were sustained in a Horse-related incident or in relation to Football. Rugby codes accounted for 65% of Football SCI cases for this 5-year period.

Males outnumbered females for all mechanisms of injury, with the exception of Horse-related SCI.

Overall, one-third (33%) of people who sustained a traumatic SCI during this period were Engaged in a sports or leisure activity at the time of injury (399 cases). During this 5-year period, approximately 150 cases (13%) of traumatic SCI occurred while the person was Working for income.