What Are the Most Common Types of Spinal Injury Claims?

Image of a man's back

I was recently asked to speak at a spinal surgeons’ conference, and this has made me think about the most common types of spine surgery claims. Broadly speaking, there are five common types of claim; these are:

1. Cauda Equina Syndrome Claims

The cauda equina is a bundle of nerves at the bottom of the spinal cord. Damage to these nerves can cause devastating disability, including loss of bladder and bowel control, loss of sexual function, numbness and paralysed legs.

Sometimes it comes on suddenly when a disc prolapses and puts pressure on the cauda equina, therefore doctors need to be alert to ‘red flag’ symptoms, such as:

• Sciatic pain in both legs (but, not just one)
• Weakness or numbness in both legs
• Difficulty passing urine
• Loss of bowel sensation and control
• Numbness in the ‘saddle’ area

The condition is sometimes missed by GPs and emergency departments and doing so can lead to severe disability. It is one of the top five errors giving rise to successful claims against GPs.

At other times, the spinal canal gradually narrows (a process called stenosis) putting pressure on the cauda equina. This is not necessarily an emergency, but patients may need surgery before there is permanent damage.

Read more about this in our articles ‘Spinal Surgery, Negligent Delays and Recognised Complications: When Can a Claimant Recover Damages?’ and ‘What Effect Can Cauda Equina Negligence Have on Your Life?

2. Surgical Error Claims: Damage to the Spinal Cord, Nerves and Arteries

There are a large number of different types of spinal surgery. They all involve some risk of damage to other structures – the spinal cord, nerves and arteries. Damaging any of these structures through surgical negligence can cause serious injury, and nerve injuries are one of the most common causes of spinal surgery claims.

According to a recent study, 23% of spinal surgery claims arose from surgeons causing nerve damage and 12% involved damage to the spinal cord.

In one case, a surgeon carried out a spinal fusion using a metal cage and screws, but one of the screws was wrongly placed and damaged a nerve. Other injuries arose when surgeons used the wrong technique or the wrong equipment.

3. Anticoagulation Errors and Bleeding Claims

Some cases concern serious bleeding after surgery. In one recent case a woman was given anti-coagulation medication (which increases the risk of bleeding) to reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis. However, it was given very soon after surgery – 3 hours later – when normal practice is not to do so until 12 to 24 hours later. She suffered a serious bleed which caused pressure on the spinal cord and left her disabled. The court found that giving anti-coagulation so early was negligent.

Read more about this case in our article ‘Bleeding After Spinal Surgery: A Seriously Disabled Woman Recovers Damages’.

Man having his back looked at by a doctor

4. Lack of Consent Claims

It is important that patients understand the risks and benefits of their treatment, but also of the alternatives. The law changed in 2015 with a decision of the Supreme Court which aimed to ensure patients are properly informed to make the right decision and there is not a lack of informed consent.

There have been several cases since 2015 where patients were not properly advised about the risks of spinal surgery and suffered injury. Those cases have succeeded where there was good reason to think that, with the right advice, the patient would not have run that risk.

5. Mismanaging Spinal Infection Claims

Infections involving the spinal cord need to be managed quickly if they are not to do lasting damage. Nearly 10% of spinal surgery claims involve the management of infection.

In one very sad case, a young man was left very disabled after delays in recognising his spinal infection. He developed leg and back pain and started to feel unwell, so was taken to his local hospital. Staff failed to realise that he was seriously ill with an epidural abscess and they took too long to carry out blood tests and scans. The infection spread into the intradural space within his spinal cord, he developed meningitis, ventriculitis (inflammation of part of the brain) and hydrocephalus (a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid within the brain).

He ended up with paralysis of his arms and legs (tetraplegia).

Have You Suffered a Spinal Surgery Error?

If you have suffered an injury due to negligent spinal surgery and would like to learn more about making a claim for compensation, our team of expert spinal injury solicitors are here to help. Contact us now for a free, no-obligation assessment of your claim.