What is the life expectancy and mortality of spinal cord injury (SCI)?

Updated: Nov 01, 2018
  • Author: Lawrence S Chin, MD, FACS, FAANS; Chief Editor: Brian H Kopell, MD  more...
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Approximately 10-20% of patients who have sustained a spinal cord injury do not survive to reach acute hospitalization, whereas about 3% of patients die during acute hospitalization.

Originally the leading cause of death in patients with spinal cord injury who survived their initial injury was renal failure, but, currently, the leading causes of death are pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, or septicemia. Heart disease, [18, 19] subsequent trauma, suicide, and alcohol-related deaths are also major causes of death in these patients. [20, 21] In persons with spinal cord injury, the suicide rate is higher among individuals who are younger than 25 years.

Among patients with incomplete paraplegia, the leading causes of death are cancer and suicide (1:1 ratio), whereas among persons with complete paraplegia, the leading cause of death is suicide, followed by heart disease.

Life expectancies for patients with spinal cord injury continues to increase but are still below the general population. Patients aged 20 years at the time they sustain these injuries have a life expectancy of approximately 35.7 years (patients with high tetraplegia [C1-C4]), 40 years (patients with low tetraplegia [C5-C8]), or 45.2 years (patients with paraplegia). [11] Individuals aged 60 years at the time of injury have a life expectancy of approximately 7.7 years (patients with high tetraplegia), 9.9 years (patients with low tetraplegia), and 12.8 years (patients with paraplegia).

A 2006 study by Strauss and colleagues reported that among patients with spinal cord injury, during the critical first 2 years following injury, a 40% decline in mortality occurred between 1973 and 2004. [22] During that same 31-year period, there had been only a small, statistically insignificant reduction in mortality in the post 2-year period for these patients.

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