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Paralysis more common than thought

April 21, 2009 |  8:55 am

Spinal cord damage and paralysis are substantially more common in the United States than researchers had previously believed, according to a new study by the University of New Mexico's Center for Development and Disability.

In a study released Tuesday by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, Anthony Cahill and his colleagues reported that about 5,596,000 Americans are living with some form of paralysis, defined as a central nervous system disorder resulting in difficulty or inability to move the upper and lower limbs. That is about 40% more than the previous estimate of 4 million.

"That means one in 50 Americans is living with some form of paralysis," said Peter T. Wilderotter, president and chief executive of the foundation.

The leading cause of paralysis was stroke, which accounted for 29% of cases. Spinal cord injuries accounted for 23% and multiple sclerosis 17%.

They also found that about 1,275,000 people have suffered a spinal cord injury, more than five times the previous estimate of 255,702.

Paralysis seems to be disproportionately distributed among ethnic groups and the poor, the researchers found, with African Americans and Native Americans bearing the greatest burden. Roughly a quarter of households with a paralyzed member have an annual income less than $10,000 per year, compared with only 7% of households in the general population.

The three-year survey was designed by paralysis experts from 14 universities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was conducted through telephone calls to a representative 33,000 U.S. households.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II