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Catastrophic Injury


A catastrophic injury is the most serious type of workplace injury that can occur.

Such injuries usually take place without warning, as might be the case with a sudden amputation. While any part of the body can be affected, it’s often the brain, spinal cord, limbs, the nervous system, and major organs that are impacted in some way by a serious injury of this nature.

Because catastrophic injuries can also affect the ability to resume work-related duties, workers’ compensation claims are often filed.

Possible Catastrophic Workplace Injuries

Because of the severity of spinal cord injuries (SCIs), this is what most people think of when the term “catastrophic injury” is used. Other healthcare professionals extend this definition to include any serious injury affecting the nervous system, which includes both the spinal cord and brain and many related parts. Generally, catastrophic injuries related to the workplace may also involve:

  • Loss of hearing or sight
  • Neurological damage
  • Third-degree burns
  • Severe fractures
  • Crush injuries
  • Toxic chemical exposure
  • Puncture wounds
  • Head or eye injuries
  • Back, neck, and/or joint injuries

Why Catastrophic Injuries Occur

Some work-related catastrophic injuries simply happen because of a random accident. Other serious injuries occur because of a lack of sufficient training, falls from significant heights, or lapses in safety procedures and protocols. It’s also possible for a catastrophic work injury to be the result of negligence on the part of an employer or co-worker, or the manufacturer of certain pieces of equipment.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosis of a catastrophic injury usually involves additional testing to determine the extent of the damage after an initial examination. For instance, a CT scan or MRI may be done if a crush injury occurred to determine how bones, joints, and internal organs may have been affected. A nerve conduction study or muscle test may be done if damage to nerves or certain muscle groups is suspected. A thorough neurological exam may be performed if the spinal cord has been damaged in a certain area. With brain injuries, a PET scan is usually done to evaluate the brain and its tissues. The severity of injuries to the brain is assessed with the Glasgow Coma Scale.

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With detached limbs, surgery is often attempted to reattached the limb, if possible. Otherwise, a prosthetic limb may be recommended. Bracing or traction may be necessary if multiple fractures occurred. Physical and mental forms of therapy are often recommended to address health issues related to brain injuries. Spine-related injuries are usually treated with medication and a customized physical therapy program. Catastrophic injury treatment may also involve:

  • Skin grafts for severe burns
  • Surgical reconstruction
  • Stem cell therapy or PRP injections to stimulate healing
  • Ongoing monitoring if internal organs are affected
  • TENS units and other forms of electrical stimulation
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

Catastrophic injuries aren’t likely to just get better. Still, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to regain the ability to return to work at some point if treatment is effective. What workers’ compensation can do is provide the financial resources necessary to absorb the extra costs associated with physical therapy and other recovery efforts. It’s also not unusual for victims to need long-term care even after the initial healing and rehabilitation period.

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