Spinal Injuries Extrication - The Australian Perspective

TitleSpinal Injuries Extrication - The Australian Perspective
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication1997
AuthorsLeahy, SJ
Conference NameInternational Medical-Rescue Conference
Date Published09/1997
PublisherInternational Life Saving Federation
Conference LocationSan Diego, California, USA
Call Number19
Other Numbers142
Keywordsspinal cord injury

With nearly 86% of the Australian population living along the 37,000 kilometres of beautiful coastline, it is no wonder that ocean and aquatic sports are a favourite Australian pastime. Surf Life Saving Australia is one of the largest volunteer aquatic rescue organisations in the world, with 22,000 active surf lifesavers (total membership of 80,000) patrolling 300 aquatic locations around the country.

Apart from immersion, one of the most traumatic incidents that a surf lifesaver will encounter is a spinal cord injury (SCI) in the surf zone.

Every year, about 420 Australians suffer a spinal cord injury. While spinal cord injuries can happen to anyone, most patients who suffer SCI are aged between 15 and 29. For every injured female there are five injured males. Alcohol is a common factor.

Spinal cord injuries as a result of water sports make up 20% of all spinal cord injuries. It follows motor vehicle injury and falls from a height as a cause of permanent spinal injury.

This cause of spinal injury has been neglected to date and has been overshadowed by motor vehicle injury in spinal awareness campaigns in Australia. Unfortunately there is a general lack of public education and health promotions in regards to overall water safety. Considering most victims of water sports related spinal cord injury are young people of normally healthy lifestyle, I suggest that this group warrant special attention as the patients live longer and require greater resources and rehabilitation.

Research programs conducted by State Governments and Surf Life Saving Australia estimate that it costs the community AU$625,000 for each drowning. One can expect that this figure would rise for each permanent spinal cord injury.

The major damage in a surf related incident is to the C5 and C6 vertebrae. Two separate studies, (Griffiths, 1980 and Hall & Burke, 1978) are both supportive of this and suggest that males make up 95% of victims. It would be fair to say that most spinal cord injuries could be prevented.

Rescue from the water must be effected early as the patient is usually face down and therefore suffocates within minutes. The lucky ones are able to walk from the water, simply complaining of severe neck pain. The unlucky ones will remain permanently quadriplegic.

Water rescue organisations round the world continue to grapple with the issue of how best to conduct preventive programs and how best to handle the patient once the injury has occurred.

The International Life Saving Federation Medical Commission discussed rescue techniques in Cardiff in 1994 and conducted trials with the assistance of the director of the spinal unit in that city.

Directors of spinal units in Australia, as well as rescue and medical experts from international aquatic organisations, have been consulted in the formulation of SLSA’s techniques. The technique has been developed over a period of more than 10 years and has been extensively trialed both in Australia and overseas.