A tiny device measuring 3cm long and a few millimetres wide is giving paralysed patients the hope of one day walking again. The new device, dubbed the bionic spine will enable paralysed patients to walk by allowing them to control bionic limbs with the power of subconscious thought.

How amazing is that?! So how does it work?
Doctors will place the bionic spine on the motor cortex area of the brain through the use of a catheter, inserted in the back of the patient’s neck. The outside of the bionic spine is fitted with electrodes which will detect signals from the motor cortex and send them to a small device that will be implanted in the patient’s shoulder.

This device will translate the signals into commands, which will be fed to the bionic limbs via Bluetooth to tell them to move. The device will be implanted into 3 patients next year.

So what does this new device mean for those claims involving paralysed persons? We take a look!
To help put into perspective what this device really means for paralysed persons it is necessary to give a little background into what a spinal cord injury is and what it involves. A spinal cord injury happens if pressure is applied to the spinal cord, and/or the blood and oxygen supply to the cord is disrupted.

The damage to the spinal cord may be complete or incomplete, depending on the degree of injury to the nerve fibres.

The facts relating to spinal injuries are somewhat surprising, with:
  • Around 12,000 people in Australia have a spinal cord injury;
  • 350 to 400 new cases are recorded each year;
  • Of reported traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI), 84% are male and 16% female;
  • SCI’s were most frequent in the 15-24 year old age group (accounting for 30%);
  • The Northern Territory has the highest incidence rate of SCI, followed by Western Australia.
Approximately 80% of newly reported spinal cord injury cases are accident related, consisting of:
  • 46% attributable to motor vehicle related incidents;
  • 28% attributable to falls;
  • 9% attributable to being hit or struck on the head by an object;
  • 9% attributable to water related accidents;
  • 8% attributable to other causes (e.g. sporting accidents).
The most common categories of SCI are:
  • Incomplete quadriplegia at 38%;
  • Incomplete paraplegia at 27%;
  • Complete paraplegia at 20%;
  • Complete quadriplegia at 15%.
Of the above accident related SCI’s some may have been caused due to the negligence of another, meaning the injured person is able to bring a claim for damages (a serious injury claim) against the person/entity for their spinal cord injury.

So could the bionic spine be included in an injured person’s claim for damages and will this affect their claim?
As part of a claim for damages an injured person is assessed for permanent impairment. This assessment is performed by a medical expert who provides a percentage of whole person impairment, calculated according to certain guidelines.

The degree of impairment or DPI can affect the amount of damages recoverable as it can play a role in determining the amount awarded for general damages, future economic loss and future special damages.

While the bionic spine may not change the percentage of impairment a paralysed person has sustained, it is something that could be included in a claim as a future treatment cost. However to be able to substantiate a claim for this cost a medical expert will need to state that this is something the injured person will require or benefit from.

The bionic spine is certainly an amazing piece of technology that many paralysed persons could benefit from. For those who are unfortunate enough to have become paralysed due to the negligence of another, the cost of the bionic spine may be something that could be included in their claim as a future cost.

But just how much movement the bionic spine will allow paralysed persons, how much it will improve their quality of life, and how successful the new technology will be, still remains to be seen.

Perhaps these questions need to be answered before an injured person can successfully make a claim for the cost of the technology. Watch this space!

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