Effects of Spinal Cord Injury on Olympic Athletes & the Average Joe

The Winter Olympics Games are full of exciting competition, but they are also a scary display of hundreds of athletes racing down mountains or propelling themselves into the air. Travelling that fast can easily result in severe injuries, such as the one suffered by Russian ski cross racer, Maria Komissarova. In a practice run on February 15th, Komissarova fell while exiting a jump and fractured the 12th dorsal vertebra (lower-middle back). Komissarvoa underwent a 6 and a half hour surgery and will most likely have to receive additional surgeries in the upcoming weeks.

While competing in the Olympics is a unique opportunity, a spinal cord injury is far too common. Every year, between 12,000 and 20,0000 individuals suffer a spinal cord injury. The leading cause of spinal cord injuries is motor vehicle accidents.

The spinal cord is the column of nerve tissue, protected by the vertebra (bones in the spine), which sends messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Damage to the spinal cord can be caused by a sudden force (causing a fracture or compression of the vertebra) or gradually over time (from swelling, bleeding, or inflammation).

Ultimately, damage to the spinal cord causes loss of sensation or motor control. The type of function affected depends upon where along the back and spine the damage occurred, as well as the severity of the injury. Many spinal cord injuries result in permanent disability or paralysis of all four extremities (quadriplegia) or only the lower body (paraplegia).

Individuals who suffer from a spinal cord injury can spend weeks in the hospital followed by months in rehabilitation. Many individuals will also suffer long-term or permanent physical disabilities such as loss of sensation and respiratory issues. Furthermore, individuals who suffer a spinal cord injury and their families also face a number of other long term effects. For example, the average annual medical cost: $15,000–$30,000 per year and the estimated lifetime cost: $500,000–more than $3 million, depending on injury severity.

Physiological effects, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD are also extremely likely. According to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, it is important for individuals who have suffered a paralysis injury to find a community of people with similar experiences.

For more information on spinal cord injuries visit the CDC and Mayo Clinic websites. Also look at our Spinal Cord Injury Infographic: