Skip to main content

Rick Hansen, the strapping athlete who wheeled around the world to raise millions for spinal cord injury research, is one of Canada's most iconic figures.

But others who suffer from the same medical condition are largely invisible and forgotten. In fact, until now, health officials had no idea how many Canadian were living with spinal cord injury or the economic cost of the devastating condition.

But a new report, commissioned by the Rick Hansen Institute, reveals some startling data, including:

- There are 85,556 people living with spinal cord injury in Canada, the equivalent of the population of Red Deer, Alta.;

- The total includes 48,243 people with tetraplegia (impairment of the arms, trunk, legs and pelvic function) and 30,324 people with paraplegia (in which arm function is not impaired);

- There is an average of 4,259 new cases of spinal cord injury each year;

- About half of all cases are due to traumatic injury - most sustained in motor vehicle collisions. The other leading cause is diseases such as ALS and cancer;

- The economic cost of traumatic spinal cord injury is $3.6-billion a year, including $1.8-billion in direct medical costs (there are no economic data for non-traumatic SCI);

- The lifetime medical costs of a quadriplegic exceed $3-million; for a paraplegic, $1.6-million.

"This report lays out, for the first time, the scope, scale, magnitude and cost of spinal cord injury in human and economic terms," said Bill Barrable, CEO of the Rick Hansen Institute. "This is a milestone because measuring the extent of the problem is the first step in developing strategies for preventing, mitigating, treating and curing spinal cord injuries," he said in an interview.

Marcel Dvorak, medical director of the neurological and orthopedic spine program at Vancouver Coastal Health, said the wealth of data will also provide a big boost to researchers.

"We're excited that with an established baseline we can incorporate age-specific and behavioural factors as well as socio-economic indicators in future research to better understand spinal cord injury in the Canadian context," he said.

The new report, prepared by the Urban Futures Institute, predicts that the number of people living with spinal cord injury will increase sharply in coming years, reaching 121,000 in 2030.

The expected increase is due largely to the aging population: Older people have more falls and suffer disproportionately from illnesses such as cancer.

Spinal cord injuries require substantial medical care. The median length of hospital stay after the initial injury is a staggering 140 days, including critical care, acute care and in-patient rehabilitation.

The long-term health-care costs are due not to the visible paralysis, but to medical complications such as urinary tract infections, pressure ulcers and pneumonia. Severe depression is also common among people with this type of injury; treatment for depression accounts for almost half of all physician visits.

Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman, suffered a spinal cord injury when he was thrown from a horse. He died due to complications from pressure ulcers (known colloquially as bed sores.)

The life expectancy of a person with spinal cord injury is 15 to 30 years shorter than for the general population.

Mr. Hansen, 53, suffered a spinal cord injury at age 15 when the pick-up truck in which he was riding crashed. He later became a world-class wheelchair athlete before undertaking the Man in Motion World Tour in 1985.

In two years, he rolled more than 40,000 kilometres in 34 countries, raising $26-million for spinal cord research.

The Rick Hansen Institute has since raised more than $200-million. Mr. Hansen's latest endeavour is to create an international SCI registry that will facilitate research.