This 18th report in the Spinal cord injury, Australia series presents national statistics on spinal cord injury (SCI) using data from case registrations to the Australian Spinal Cord Injury Register (ASCIR) for 2016–17.

A total of 227 newly incident cases of traumatic SCI due to external causes were reported for 2016–17 among people aged 15 or over. Of these cases, 220 resulted in a persisting traumatic SCI; 3 died; 3 had no long-term neurological injury; and 1 was still to be discharged as at April 2019. All those who died were men aged over 50, and the time between the injury and death was 13 to 124 days. Neurological level of injury for all those who died was C4 or higher (the highest region being cervical spine segments C1–C8).

In 2016–17, the age-standardised incidence rate of persisting traumatic SCI was estimated to be 11.1 cases per million population aged 15 and over. The age-specific rate was highest for ages 75 or older (13.0 cases per million population), followed by 12.6 cases per million for ages 45–54.

The incidence rates of persisting traumatic SCI for males were higher across all age groups than those for females.

The median duration of initial care was longest for the most severe type of persisting traumatic SCI on admission—Complete tetraplegia. Complete tetraplegia is a neurological injury to the cervical spine, with no motor or sensory function preserved at the lowest sacral segments S4–S5. Half of these 2016–17 cases with Complete tetraplegia spent 250 days (approximately 36 weeks) or longer in hospital, from the time of injury to being discharged home from a specialist spinal unit.

Causes of spinal cord injury

A similar number of traumatic SCI cases sustained in 2016–17 were due to a Land transport crash (89 cases) or a Fall of some kind (88 cases), with each causal category contributing 39%.

Overall, Unprotected land transport users accounted for nearly 1 in 4 (24%) traumatic SCI cases for this reporting period. A Low fall or fall from an unspecified height (20%) was the second most frequently reported mechanism of injury, followed by a High fall (19%). Motor vehicle occupants contributed to 15% of traumatic SCI cases for 2016-17. Water-related events, such as diving into shallow water or being dumped by a wave, accounted for 7% of all traumatic SCI cases during this period.

The leading cause of traumatic SCI for males was a Land transport crash as an Unprotected land transport user (49 cases; 27%), while for females it was a Low fall (16 cases; 36%).

More than one-third (39%) of cases reported to the ASCIR for 2016–17 were sustained while the person was Engaged in sports or leisure activities, and 80% of these were males. Unlike in previous years, the second most frequent activity group reported was not While working for income (7%) but was While engaged in other types of work such as undertaking home maintenance (10%).