Statistics on Spinal Cord Injury/Disability

Since 1973, a National Spinal Cord Injury Database has captured data from about 13% of new spinal cord injury (SCI) cases in the United States. During that time, two dozen federally funded Model Care Systems contributed data on nearly 20,000 people. Here is the sketch that emerges from that data.


  • About 10,000 new SCI cases occur every year. This number may be low, because it does not include cases in which the injured person died instantaneously or soon after the injury. Nor does it include spinal cord injuries that left little or no neurological deficit.
  • Estimates of people living with SCI today range from 183,000 to 400,000. The National Spinal Cord Injury Database estimate is 183,000 to 230,000.


  • SCI affects primarily young adults: 55% of these injuries are among 16 to 30 year olds.
  • The mean age at time of injury has increased over the years, as has the proportion of injuries to persons over 60. This may be a reflection of the increase in the median age of the general population.


  • For 25 years, the database has shown a 4 to 1 male to female ratio. Overall, 81.7% of persons in the database are male.

Ethnic Groups

  • In the 1970's, about 75% of those injured were Caucasian; however, since 1990, the percentage of SCI injuries to Caucasians has declined while the percentages for African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians have risen.



  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of SCI, followed by violence (primarily gunshot wounds), falls, and sports injuries. Trends show injuries from crashes and sports decreasing while injuries from acts of violence and falls have steadily increased.

Level and Extent of Lesion

  • Slightly more than half of spinal cord injuries result in tetraplegia (quadriplegia). Persons with tetraplegia have sustained injuries to one if the eight cervical segments of the spinal cord. Persons with paraplegia have injuries in the thoracic, lumbar, or sacral regions of the spinal cord.
  • Long-term trends indicate more people with incomplete paraplegia and fewer with complete tetraplegia.

Occupational Status

  • More than half are employed at the time of their injury. Ten years post-injury, employment figures are somewhat better for persons with paraplegia (35% employed) than tetraplegia (24% employed).


  • Over 90% of people with SCI are discharged to a private, non-institutional residence, usually their home. Less than 5% are discharged to nursing homes.

Marital Status

  • Over half of persons with SCI are single at the time of injury. If married, the likelihood of remaining married is slightly lower than for the uninjured population. The likelihood of getting married is also reduced.

Hospital Stays

  • Overall, average hospitalizations in the acute care unit have shortened—as have days in the rehab unit—for persons who enter Model Care Systems. Mean days hospitalized is greater for people with neurologically complete injuries.


Life Expectancy

  • Though somewhat lower than those for the non-injured population, life expectancies for people with SCI continue to increase.
  • Mortality rates are significantly higher during the first year after an injury than during subsequent years.
  • At one time, renal failure—partial or complete loss of kidney function—was the leading cause of death. Today, advances in urologic management have shifted the leading causes to pneumonia, pulmonary emboli, and septicemia.

Average Yearly Health Care & Living Expenses

The average yearly expenses below are from the National Spinal Cord Injury Database. These are expenses that are directly attributable to the SCI injury. They don't include items such as lost wages and fringe benefits.

Average Yearly Expenses in 1999 Dollars

Severity of Injury

1st Year

Each Year Thereafter

High tetraplegia (C1-C4)



Low tetraplegia (C5-C8)






Incomplete motor function at any level




Estimated Lifetime Costs

Again, the figures below do not include lost wages, fringe benefits, productivity, etc.

Estimated Lifetime Costs by Age at Injury (discounted at 2%)

Severity of Injury

25 Years Old

50 Years Old

High tetraplegia (C1-C4)



Low tetraplegia (C5-C8)






Incomplete motor function at any level



Pediatric SCI

A pediatric spinal cord injury is defined as an acute traumatic lesion of the spinal cord and roots in children, from newborn through age 15.

Nearly 10% of the new cases of SCI occurring annually in the U.S. affect children. 

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