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Spinal Injuries: A Growing Concern For Cyclists 

From the 1990s to the 2010s, the fatal crash rate for cyclists in San Francisco has been cut in half, thanks to more people hitting the road than ever before, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious safety risks when it comes to riding on two wheels. 

Spinal injuries, which can be life-changing, are among the most dangerous and, unfortunately, most common injuries in the world of cycling. In fact, they increased by 200% between 2010 and 2013, according to one study. That’s substantially higher than accidents for vehicle drivers (it increased for that group by 29%) and motorcyclists (an increase of 68%). 

Biking is estimated to be the cause of as many as four in five sport-related spinal injuries.

Of course, other sports and activities can also pose a threat to our spines. Skiing and snowboarding accounts for about 12% of spinal injuries and contact sports cause about 3% of spine-related injuries. Water sports are also a leading cause of spinal injuries. 

What is spinal trauma?

The spinal cord is complex and involves much more than just the vertebrae. Nerves run along the back to deliver messages from the brain to the rest of the body, so an injury can end up impacting much more of the body. Damage to the spine, spinal column or bones around the spine all are considered spinal trauma.

“Sometimes relatively minor falls or accidents can result in a significant spinal cord injury. This can happen if there is an underlying degree of weakness, dislocation, or instability from an untreated condition called degenerative spine disease,” says the Barrow Neurological Institute, based in Phoenix. 

Spinal cord injuries are classified as either complete or incomplete based on the loss of motor and sensory function. The worse the injury, the more likely it is that you are to suffer other side effects. 

Unfortunately, unlike other injuries on the body, a spinal cord injury can’t be reversed, even if surgery is required. So it’s even more imperative to avoid them as much as possible.

Compensation for spinal injuries

If you’re involved in an accident that causes a spinal injury, be aware that there are a lot of factors that will determine the outcome of your personal injury case. Whether you have surgery or have to visit specialists could determine compensation. Other factors, such as who was at fault in the accident and whether you had to miss any work as a result of the accident may also play a part.

You’ll want to seek a legal opinion from a specialist in a spinal injury case, as they can be as complex as the care and medical attention needed to recover.

An array of injuries can result in spinal trauma

A fall or a crash can cause irreversible spinal trauma. While more intense forms of riding, such as competitive road biking or mountain biking, are likely to lead to injuries that might cause spinal trauma, being hit by a car can be just as dangerous.

Most importantly, paying attention to the road, avoiding dangerous routes and preparing for busy corridors can help to prevent the kind of accidents that most often lead to spinal injuries. 

“Numerous other studies have highlighted the relationship between spinal cord injury and diving in an unsafe environment,” said Harvard Researcher Blake Hauser. “So avoiding that scenario is advisable.”

When studying spinal trauma, Hauser found that the vast majority of serious injuries involved a vehicle. Whiplash, herniated discs, spinal fracture, sprains and strains are all among the injuries that can cause extreme pain and require medical attention.

In the case you are hit and suspect you have a spinal injury, you should be careful not to make any sudden movements and call for help right away. Having trained professionals help, especially when the injury may be complex, is important to your future health and recovery.

Back pain? Crashes aren’t the only culprit

One of the biggest appeals of cycling is that it’s low-impact. Pedaling can be much easier on the knees than running or other forms of exercise, but biking doesn’t eliminate the chance of getting a twinged muscle or even more serious spinal injuries. Afterall, the back is a sensitive part of the body. 

You may feel lower back pain after a long ride or encounter a pinched nerve from sitting in an awkward position for an extended amount of time. Fortunately, stretching can help alleviate those pains and prevent a more serious injury. While most back pain may not be serious or result in a serious spinal injury, it’s important to seek appropriate medical attention if it persists. 

Don’t let the possibility of back pain keep you from cycling. It’s a common issue across sports and different lifestyles. Sitting all day at a desk or, conversely, standing on your feet can also cause mild to moderate back pain. 

Saddle height, saddle angle, handlebar positions and gearing can all make a difference and help prevent back pain before it even begins.

Can a helmet help prevent spinal trauma?

The short answer is that there isn’t enough data to make any sound conclusions. You know the difference a helmet can make on projecting your head. The use of bicycle helmets was found to reduce head injury by 48%, serious head injury by 60%, traumatic brain injury by 53%, face injury by 23%, and the total number of killed or seriously injured cyclists by 34%, according to a 2018 study

For spinal trauma, however, there isn’t much data to prove the gear will make a significant difference. 

“People need to know that the activities they choose to engage in may carry with them unique and specific risks,” Dr. Marcel Dvorak, with the University of British Columbia in Canada, told Reuters Health. “Helmets will not protect you from these injuries, nor will wearing Ninja Turtle-like body armor.”

That doesn’t mean you should forgo the safety gear. In a serious crash, you won’t want to deal with a bad spinal injury and head trauma if one or both can be prevented.