Traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) is a devastating, permanent condition that often results in partial or total loss of motor function in some or all of the limbs. Importantly, most injuries that lead to SCI—such as motor vehicle accidents, falls, and gunshot wounds—are preventable. As demographics and other relevant population characteristics change over time, public health experts aim to frequently update their understanding of SCI, including incidence, risk factors, causes of injury, and outcomes. Such efforts enable health care providers to dynamically revise and enhance SCI treatment and rehabilitation programs as injury features change.
A recent study in Finland did just that. Researchers analyzed medical records from 346 patients who were admitted to two of the country’s three SCI specialty centers. They noted each patient’s age, gender, injury characteristics, time of injury, length of hospital stay, post-injury outcomes, and other significant characteristics to deepen their understanding of the current SCI landscape in Finland. The study revealed that:
- The mean annual incidence of SCI in Finland was 36.6 per million people, notably higher than the incidence in surrounding countries.
- Falls were the most common cause of SCI, comprising 61.7 percent of injuries, followed by transportation accidents at 19.2 percent.
- About 3 in 4 of patients older than 60 years were injured by falling, and about half of these falls were from low levels (i.e., falling the ground from standing). Elderly patients also were more likely than younger patients to sustain cervical injuries, which are associated with the highest degree of motor dysfunction.
- Among patients younger than 60 years, nearly half were injured after consuming alcohol.
The researchers concluded that Finland’s relatively high incidence of SCI compared to surrounding countries—as well as the rising incidence of falls from low height—can be attributed to Finland’s rapidly growing elderly population. As people age, poor eyesight and physical weakness leave them increasingly vulnerable to falls in the home. Meanwhile, rising alcohol use among youth and young adults has elevated risk for SCI and other debilitating traumatic conditions, such as brain injury. Prevention efforts in Finland and demographically similar countries should use a dual approach that targets in-home and fall safety for elderly individuals and safe alcohol use in younger individuals.
Johansson E, Luoto TM, Vainionpää A, et al. Epidemiology of traumatic spinal cord injury in Finland. Spinal Cord. (July 2021).