About Spinal Cord Injury

The spinal cord is an extension of the brain and runs from the neck to the lower back. It has the consistency of toothpaste, and is therefore surrounded and protected by the bony spinal column (the spine). The spinal cord consists of millions of nerve fibres that transmit information to and from the limbs, trunk and organs of the body.

Spinal cord injury occurs if pressure is applied to the spinal cord, and/or the blood and oxygen supply to the cord is disrupted. This means that part of the spinal cord dies.

The major causes of traumatic spinal cord injury are traffic-related accidents (motor vehicles and motor cycles), falls, diving and sports-related accidents.

There are two main types of spinal cord injury, depending on where the damage to the spinal cord occurs.

Quadriplegia (Tetraplegia) is the partial or complete paralysis of the upper and lower portion of the body, including legs, trunk arms and hands. Quadriplegia is a neck injury.

Paraplegia is the partial or complete paralysis of the lower portion of the body, including the legs and, in many cases, some or all the trunk. Paraplegia is a back injury.

Facts and Figures

Around 15,000 people in Australia have spinal cord injury. 350 to 400 new cases are recorded each year. Most spinal cord injuries are permanent and life changing.

  • 52% are caused by transport-related accidents
  • 28% are caused by falls
  • 10% by recreational activities and sports like rugby, surfing and diving
  • Men account for 83% of spinal cord injuries
  • Most common age group to have a spinal cord injury is 15-24 year olds (25%)
  • Paraplegia represents 48% of spinal cord injuries, with 52% resulting in tetraplegia
  • Estimates indicate the lifetime cost for each case of paraplegia is about $5 million and that for quadriplegia, is about $9.5 million. It is also indicated that 40% of these costs will be borne by the individual.

The economic cost of spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury in Australia, The Victorian Neurotrauma Initiative, Report by Access Economics Pty Limited, Australia, June 2009, P.16.

Causes and Contributing Factors

Transport related accidents: 52%

  • Traffic
  • Non-traffic including off-road on farms, trails, mountain bike tracks, beaches and undeveloped recreational areas.


Falls (both high and low): 28%

  • Construction site accidents, factory accidents
  • Ladder falls
  • Falling from roofs

Although low falls are less frequent, they are four times more common for those aged 65+. High falls are most common among those aged 15-64, with a third of these high falls occurring at work or as a result of home handyman activities, such as clearing gutters.


Water-related: 9%

  • Diving in shallow pools or surf
  • Surfing

75% of water related spinal cord injuries are under 35 year of age. 81% of water related spinal cord injuries result in tetraplegia.


Sports-related: 10%
Contact sports, especially rugby and rugby league.

  • Contact sports
  • Motorised sports
  • Pedal cycle racing
  • Water-related sports
  • Snow-related sports
  • Rock climbing
  • Equestrian sports
  • Base jumping
  • Hang gliding

75% of sports related spinal cord injuries are people ages under 35. 62% of sports related spinal cord injuries result in tetraplegia.


Hit or struck by an object: 10%

  • Machinery
  • Falling trees
  • Physical violence
  • Guns or knives
  • Injury occurred as a result of the person impacting the ground surface or another person’s body during sport.

52% of spinal cord injuries cause by being hit or struck by an object result in paraplegia.


Other causes 3%

  • Electrocution
  • Crushing
  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Medical complication
  • Self-inflicted injury