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Sensation and loss

An injury to the spine — the long bony assemblage that supports the upper body and the spinal cord that carries nerve signals — can be grim and costly. By Bill Cannon.

To serve and protect

Each vertebral section (Fig. 1 left) — cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral — corresponds to nerve sensations in a particular region of the body, a feature that allows pinpointing the location of spinal injuries (Fig. 1 right). The numbers in circles refer to the vertebra where the nerves arise or return.

Figure 1
figure1

A world of hurt

Traumatic spinal cord injuries happen around the world, but the causes vary. Data gathered during the years 1959 to 2011 detail the causes of injury by World Health Organization regions (Fig. 2). Differences in regional lifestyles and demographics account for some variation.

Figure 2
figure2

LEE BB, ET AL SPINAL CORD (26 FEBRUARY 2013); DOI: 10.1038/SC.2012.158

Cost and consequences

The initial cost of the most severe spinal injuries can top US$1 million per patient in the first year alone and cost more than $180,000 a year thereafter, pushing lifetime costs for someone 25 years old at the time of injury to $4.6 million (Fig. 3). With improvements in medical treatment, survival rates for people suffering injuries in the first four cervical vertebrae have improved considerably (Fig. 4).

Figure 3
figure3

NATIONAL SPINAL CORD INJURY STATISTICAL CENTER AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA AT BIRMINGHAM

Figure 4
figure4

STRAUSS, D. J. ARCH PHYS MED REHABIL. 87(8): 1079–1085

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Cannon, B. Sensation and loss. Nature 503, S2–S3 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/503S2a

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