Epidural injections are a form of anesthesia administered via a needle or tube into the spinal column. When an epidural is given, the anesthesiologist (or other doctor — sometimes an orthopedic surgeon or neurosurgeon) inserts a needle which punctures the spinal column, then enters what is known as the “epidural space.” In short, the needle is pushed through the spinal column, but stopped short of puncturing the sac that contains the spinal cord itself. The anesthesia is then administered, where it serves to prevent the patient from feeling pain at points on the body below where the needle is inserted.
Although the term “epidural” normally conjures up images of childbirth, the truth is that epidurals have become an integral and commonplace part of modern medicine. A convenient form of anesthesia, epidurals are now used for a variety of surgical and other procedures, from hip replacement surgery to orthopedic procedures performed on the legs, to hernia operations. Indeed, epidurals have become normal for a large variety of surgical procedures – virtually any surgery performed below the ribcage. Epidurals also have more routine, non-surgical uses, such as for the relief of chronic back and neck pain.
But as the use of epidurals has increased, so too have the number of complications. At times, epidural complications can be an expected, but unfortunate, risk associated with the procedure. The Chicago medical malpractice attorneys of Passen & Powell, however, have noted an alarming increase in the number of epidural complications attributable to medical negligence.
When problems with the epidural occur, a variety of very serious complications can result. Some of these will be immediately apparent, such as discomfort during the procedure due to an improper or inadequate dosage of anesthesia. Also in this category is a patient’s allergic reaction to the drugs used. Other problems can be immediate or delayed, and can range in severity from dizziness to paralysis to death.
Other common complications of epidural malpractice include:
- loss of consciousness, or “passing out”
- nerve damage from puncture of the spinal sac
- nerve damage from a reaction to the drugs administered
- difficulty breathing cardiac arrest
Doctors administering epidurals are taught to follow the “Four Ps” to guide them: Preparation, Position, Projection, and Puncture. Preparation includes selecting an appropriate needle for the patient, dosage, and procedure. Position refers to properly positioning the patient, generally lying on her stomach (although the side is often used for women in labor), often with a pillow or other support in place. Projection involves positioning the needle and its initial insertion; Puncture is the penetration of the spinal column without entering the spinal sac.
Problems can occur at each stage of the “Four Ps,” and these problems may be inadvertent or due to the negligence of the anesthesiologist. For example, there are times when an allergic reaction may be an unknown and unpredictable reaction, and a known risk of the procedure. If, however, the anesthesiologist ignored a notation in the patient’s file as to a previous reaction to one of the drugs selected for use, the allergic reaction could be the result of medical negligence. Likewise, a punctured spinal sac could be an unavoidable complication in one context, or could be caused by the doctor’s improper choice of needle, negligent failure to properly position of the patient, or negligent selection of an improper insertion site for the needle.
In addition to the more common complications of epidurals, as their use has increased, so too has the incidence of uncommon complications. For example, an Australian mother-to-be was recently negligently administered antiseptic, rather than anesthetic, through her epidural injection, leading to severe complications and disability. Although such incidents are rare, they do occur, and every such incident is an inexcusable tragedy.
If you have experienced serious, permanent complications from epidural anesthesia, we encourage you to speak to an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. An experienced professional can help you to determine whether your injuries were the result of medical negligence, and help you to decide whether to pursue a legal claim.
For a free consultation with a Chicago medical malpractice attorney at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.