Spinal cord injury (SCI) is an area of key interest in military medicine but has not been studied among the US Army Special Forces (SF), the most elite group of US soldiers. SF soldiers make up a disproportionate 60% of all Special Operations casualties. The objective of this study was to better understand SCI incidence in the SF, its mechanisms of acquisition, and potential areas for intervention by addressing key issues pertaining to protective equipment and body armor use.
An electronic survey questionnaire was formulated with the close collaboration of US board-certified neurosurgeons from the Mount Sinai Hospital and Cleveland Clinic Departments of Neurosurgery, retired military personnel of the SF, and operational staff of the Green Beret Foundation. The survey was sent to approximately 6000 SF soldiers to understand SCI diagnosis and its associations with various health and military variables.
The response rate was 8.2%. Among the 492 respondents, 94 (19.1%) self-reported an SCI diagnosis. An airborne operation was the most commonly attributed cause (54.8%). Moreover, 87.1% of SF soldiers reported wearing headgear at the time of injury, but only 36.6% reported wearing body armor, even though body armor use has significantly increased in post-9/11 SF soldiers compared with that in their pre-9/11 counterparts. SCI was significantly associated with traumatic brain injury, arthritis, low sperm count, low testosterone, erectile dysfunction, tinnitus, hyperacusis, sleep apnea, posttraumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Only 16.5% of SF soldiers diagnosed with SCI had been rescued via medical evacuation (medevac) for treatment.
A high number of SF soldiers self-reported an SCI diagnosis. Airborne operations landings were the leading cause of SCI, which coincided with warfare tactics employed during the Persian Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and other conflicts. A majority of SCIs occurred while wearing headgear and no body armor, suggesting the need for improvements in protective equipment use and design. The low rate of medevac rescue for these injuries may suggest that medical rescue was not attainable at the time or that certain SCIs were deemed minor at the time of injury.