Many patients undergo surgery because of disc herniation in the cervical or lumbar spine. It is a fairly common condition, and patients expect the surgery to be routine. Although an “informed consent” document is signed, and the patient acknowledges the potential risks, no one expects to undergo surgery and wake up permanently paralyzed.
The unfortunate reality is that when a surgeon injures the spinal cord, permanent paralysis can occur.
Complete vs. Partial Paralysis
Paralysis can be “complete,” meaning total loss of sensation in all extremities. Alternatively, a person can have partial or “incomplete” paralysis — meaning the spinal cord was not totally damaged, and may leave the patient with partial sensation or movement of the extremities.
The extent of the paralysis depends upon the level of the spinal cord at which the injury occurs. Injuries in the cervical, or neck, region tend to cause paralysis of movement and potentially lack of sensation below the level of the injury, which includes the lower extremities. Accordingly, a severe neck spinal cord injury may result in quadriplegia — total or partial loss of function in all four limbs.
Conversely, severe injury to the spinal cord further down the body may result in paraplegia — loss of function of two limbs, usually the legs. Injury to the spinal cord is less likely in the lumbar spine, as the spinal cord ends in that section of the vertebrae.
Cervical injuries can be devastating. If an injury occurs high enough up in the spine, breathing muscles are affected. When Christopher Reeves fell from a horse and broke his neck, he suffered damage at one of the higher level cervical vertebra, resulting in the necessity for a mechanical ventilator.
Surgical Malpractice Causing Spinal Cord Injury
In most cases, a reasonably careful surgeon should not cause injury to a patient’s spinal cord during surgery. Instead, because of the known catastrophic consequences of spinal cord injury, the spinal cord should be protected at all costs.
Studies have shown that spinal cord monitoring can prevent some avoidable spinal cord injuries during surgery. Monitoring is done with a device that senses changes in sensory and electrical impulses. If there is a change, the physician is alerted by the monitor and can make repairs that will prevent permanent damage.
Spinal cord injuries are devastating and the costs of care for a patient with a spinal cord injury can run to millions of dollars over their lifetime. If a physician does not take appropriate precautions to avoid injury to the spinal cord during surgery, or if signs of spinal cord injury are not timely detected and treated, a patient can be catastrophically and permanently harmed.
If you or a family member has sustained spinal cord injury during surgery, you should contact a top medical malpractice attorney so you can better understand your rights and ability to hold those responsible accountable.
Call Passen & Powell today at 312-527-4500 for a Free Legal Consultation.