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Catastrophic Injury


The general term "catastrophic injury" applies to extreme or serious injuries.

A catastrophic personal injury is one that involves very serious injuries that could affect the brain, spinal cord, major organs, or other parts of the body.

These are usually injuries that typically have a long-term impact on an individual’s ability to return to their previous activities or enjoy their desired quality of life.

Types of Catastrophic Injuries

Some medical professionals consider catastrophic injuries to primarily be ones that disrupt the central nervous system (CNS) in some way. This generally includes all types of brain injuries, including ones that result from a hard fall, motor vehicle accident, or direct impact to the head. Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) can be sustained in similar ways. Injuries involving severe physical trauma and/or impairment may also be considered catastrophic. Such injuries may include:

  • Severe burns
  • Head and neck injuries
  • Amputations
  • Bone fractures in multiple locations
  • Organ damage caused by a hard impact, puncture wound, or similar injury source
  • Injuries resulting from exposure to hazardous or toxic chemicals and substances
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Initial Assessment of Serious Injuries

Due to the nature of catastrophic injuries, there is typically no doubt that an injury has been sustained. For this reason, the main focus with initial medical care is often on evaluating the extent of the injury and determining how to best treat it. This process usually involves X-rays, CT scans, and other types of image tests. A complete neurological exam may also take place, especially with catastrophic spinal cord injuries.

With a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), the Glasgow Coma Scale is often used to determine the extent of the injury. If organs are affected, blood or urine tests may be done to look for signs of issues with organ functions. An ultrasound scan is sometimes ordered to look for visual signs of damage to organs or structures within the affected area. Severe burn injuries are assessed based on the degree of the damage to the skin.

Treatment and Symptom Management

It’s common for catastrophic personal injuries to require immediate surgery. This is sometimes necessary to stop internal bleeding or prevent infection. If multiple fractures occurred, bracing and similar immobilization techniques may be used. With brain injuries, treatment often involves addressing both physical and mental symptoms, such as dizziness, confusion, or memory loss. Treatment for spinal cord injuries may be delayed for a few days so that initial swelling around the injury site can go down. Treatment of catastrophic injuries may also involve:

  • Therapeutic exercises
  • A customized PT or rehab program
  • Medication to control pain and other symptoms
  • Skin grafts to treat severe burns
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Reconstructive surgery

Just because a personal injury is considered catastrophic doesn’t mean recovery isn’t possible. However, most injuries like this do involve lengthy rehabilitation and recovery periods. Some serious injury sufferers require follow-up procedures to further improve their quality of life. But others may never be able to fully return to a pre-injury state, which may affect the ability to participate in enjoyable activities or return to work.

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