Spinal Cord Injury – Looking Back and Looking Forward

In honor of National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month, NARIC Director Mark Odum shares his insight on the past and future of spinal cord injury.

More than 40 years ago I broke my neck diving into and hitting my head on the bottom of an in-ground, backyard swimming pool. I was 19 years old. In the 1970s, my spinal cord injury (SCI) was considered a “sports” injury, it was #2 on the cause list behind vehicular injuries. Today, sports-related SCIs are much further down the list mostly due to better sports equipment (e.g. look at the evolution of football helmets) and better prevention education (Feet First, First Time; Heads Up Football Coaching). Vehicular-caused injuries continue to be #1, but vehicle safety improvements and better driver education mean they are not nearly as prevalent as they once were. (Learn more about the leading causes of SCI)

After my injury, I was air-lifted to one of the first university-based trauma centers. Paralyzed from the neck down, I was told that I may not walk again but they were working on a cure and it could be found within 5 years. Keep up hope but prepare for the worst. Fast forward 40 years… I still visit with newly injured patients and care teams are still delivering the same message:  there will be a cure in 5 years.

While we are still searching for a cure, the speed of medical science has been picking up and advancing research and the improvement in our quality of life. NIDILRR has been at the forefront of many efforts as far back as 1973. That’s when it established the National SCI Database that has gone on to continuously direct the collection, management, and analysis of the world’s largest and longest SCI research database. Data comes from the NIDILRR-funded SCI Model System Centers across the US, which study the impact of SCI from point of injury through rehabilitation and return to the community. Currently the database is a major activity of the NIDILRR-funded National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.

Before the 1970s, there wasn’t a lot known about SCI, especially high-level injuries that affected not only movement and muscles, but entire bodily systems. Life expectancy for persons with SCI was significantly reduced, mostly because of urological or respiratory infections. Since then, many improvements in medicine, especially in the management of infections, have increased life expectancy, with many survivors living decades past their injury. The National SCI Database has been a key resource for understanding the impact of SCI, as has the Longevity After Injury Project, a long-term study funded by NIDILRR. The findings from this 45-year longitudinal study are making significant contributions to our understanding of the many changes in the lives of persons with SCI living more than 40 years post injury.

Not only are persons with SCI living longer, but seem to be living better too. NIDILRR has funded some of the more exciting and innovative research aimed at reducing barriers and increasing access for people with SCI.

The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERCs) conduct research and development in technology to improve access, function, and participation. These include

NIDILRR-funded research has also explored brain-computer interface technology to operate assistive devices and reanimate paralyzed hands; developing policy for accessibility and universal design at school, work, and in the community; improving prescription of wheelchairs and other mobility technology; and much more. All aimed at ensuring people with disabilities can fully participate in the community of their choosing. Visit the Program Database to learn more about current projects funded by NIDILRR.

In addition to NIDILRR-funded research, exciting research is happening across the country, from the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis to Veterans Administration research in exoskeletons and new mobility devices to research on epidural stimulation from the Reeve Paralysis Center. Visit these sites to learn more about their research, including clinical trials which may be seeking participants. These organizations also offer resources, support services, and much more to people with SCI, their families, and caregivers.

I am very excited to see what’s on the horizon for SCI research. As I meet with newly injured men and women, I still encourage them to look forward, not just to a cure, but to a long and active life.

To learn more about SCI, resources in your community, and ongoing research, please visit our Librarian’s Picks for SCI, our Knowledgebase, and these previous blog posts:

Ain’t It Cool – cool technology from the NIDILRR community

This Is All New to Me (Part I and Part II) – resources for families new to disability

Celebrating SCI Awareness Month with Research – a walk through NARIC’s collection of SCI research publications.

Contact our information specialists at 800/346-2742 or naricinfo@heitechservices.com if we can help you in locating additional information resources, research from our collection, and local and national organizations to assist.


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4 Responses to Spinal Cord Injury – Looking Back and Looking Forward

  1. Brian Muldoon says:


    I read Mark Odum’s piece on 40 years of living with a spinal cord injury. For me this is very moving. One of my nephews, Michael (Miquel) Flores, my best-loved nephew, athlete, scholar, golden personality, son of immigrants from El Salvador and a young man much admired by the ladies, fell off a cliff on a school climbing trip. He was 18 years old. He incurred a spinal cord injury and has not walked since. It was so painful for we who loved Michael so I cannot imagine how he felt during that “long walk back”. Today, Miguelito is married and a lawyer.
    His life has been a huge inspiration to me and the very many folks in the Flores, Rodriguez, Cruz, etc. extended family. I am the token “gringo”, married to Dina Rodriguez (misnamed Dina Guzman by Immigration).

    It is so good to know that we , human beings, can prosper in the face of very personal and poignant adversity and pain. I have seen the “other” path as well. I attended AA meetings years ago (have been 32 years without alcohol) and met others who had lost the ability to walk through accident or incident and fell into alcohol and drugs . To be honest, I often felt/thought when I looked at these struggling souls “Why not? Who can blame them?”.

    At the same time I watched Miquel struggle and grow and reposition his energy and skills into spirit, mind, outlook and society and have even wondered if his accident was not a blessing. Your story, Mark , reads like Miguel’s . Your life also is inspiration.

  2. Pingback: National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month – Start with the Basics | Collection Spotlight from the National Rehabilitation Information Center

  3. Pingback: I’m Exceptional – and I Have Research to Thank for It | Collection Spotlight from the National Rehabilitation Information Center

  4. Pingback: Celebrate the Wheelchair Technology of Today and Tomorrow | Collection Spotlight from the National Rehabilitation Information Center

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