In just an instant, a spinal cord injury can change the trajectory of your life. The nerves housed within the spinal cord are responsible for transmitting signals from the brain to the rest of the body so an injury to this incredibly important area can necessitate a lifetime of intensive medical care and the financial burden of these types of injuries can be catastrophic. Spinal cord injuries can occur in a variety of ways and their implications can vary widely. Learn all you need to know about spinal cord injuries, including how you can pursue a medical malpractice claim to seek financial compensation for your injury, in today’s blog.
What is a spinal cord injury?
A spinal cord injury refers to any damage that is sustained by the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a column which houses a very important bundle of nerves. These nerves are responsible for controlling body movements so when damage occurs, paralysis is the result. If only the lower extremities are affected by paralysis, this is referred to as paraplegia. In the case that all four limbs are paralyzed, it is called quadriplegia.
Spinal cord injuries are most often caused by traumatic injuries such as sports accidents, car accidents, diving into shallow water, and gunshot wounds. These types of injuries are most often experienced by men and women between the ages of 16-30 due to prevalent high-risk behavior. Spinal cord injuries can also be caused by other injuries and illnesses such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, inflammation of the cord, and cancer osteoperosis. Regardless of the cause, spinal cord injuries have serious, lifelong implications that can require a lifetime of medical care.
What are the implications of a spinal cord injury?
While paralysis will usually result from a spinal cord injury, there are a number of other effects that a spinal cord injury can have which will depend upon exactly which vertebrae was damaged during the injury. These include the inability to control the bowels and bladder, sexual dysfunction, constant pain, and spasms. The severity and results of an injury are often dictated by where in the spine the injury occurs. The vertebrae of the spine are divided into sections and the higher the injury along the cord (and therefor the closer it is to the brain stem), the more traumatic the injury will be.
High-cervical nerves (C1-C4)
Due to its close proximity to the brain stem, this type of spinal cord injury is by far the most traumatic. It will result in quadraplegia and the patient may need assistance to complete basic functions such as breathing, speaking, and going to the bathroom. This type of injury will usually require lifelong, 24-hour-a-day care.
Low-cervical nerves (C5-C8)
These nerves control arm and hand movements so the exact effects of this injury will depend on which vertebrae sustained damage. A patient with any of these injuries will require assistance with bathroom habits. A C5 injury will leave the patient with some paralysis to the wrists and hands but they will be able to raise their arms and bend at the elbow. Speaking is generally not affected, though breathing is usually weakened. A C6 injury will usually present as paralysis in the hands, trunks, and legs but the wrists will still be able to bend backwards. A C7 injury will also result in lack of bowel and bladder control but patients will be able to do most daily tasks without assistance. These nerves control elbow and some finger extension. A C8 injury effects hand movements and patients will usually still be able grip objects.
The thoracic vertebrae are found in the mid-back and the effects of the injury will again depend on the exact location of injury.
These nerves control affect the upper chest, abdominal, and mid-back muscles and will generally result in paralysis to the lower extremities. Functioning of the hands and arms is usually unaffected.
These nerves are responsible for muscles in the abdomen and lower back and injury to this region will usually result in paraplegia of the lower extremities. Upper-body movement is usually normal but patients generally will not have control of bladder and bowel movements.
Lumbar Nerves (L1-L5)
Injury to the lumbar nerves generally won’t result in full paralysis but rather loss of some function in hips and legs. Patients may be able to walk unassisted or with braces but bathroom habits will require assistance.
Sacral Nerves (S1-S5)
Like injury to the lumbar nerves, damage to the sacral nerves will also usually result in some loss of function in hips and legs rather than full paralysis. Of all spinal cord injuries, patients who sustain damage to the sacral nerves are most likely to be able to walk after concerted physical therapy.
Is there a cure?
Spinal cord injuries cannot be cured but certain types of medication and therapies can help to reduce the impacts of the injury. Special equipment and devices can restore basic functions and allow independence. For example, technology now exists that allows patients with varying degrees of paralysis to operate cars, bringing an important sense of normalcy to lives that have been upended by a traumatic injury. Surgery may be indicated after the injury to stabilize the spine and pharmaceutical drugs can mitigate symptoms and associated pain.
How can a spinal cord injury be caused by medical malpractice?
While the majority of spinal cord injuries are sustained during a sudden trauma, they can also be caused by medical malpractice which can open the possibility of a successful medical malpractice lawsuit. In order to qualify as medical malpractice, the spinal cord injury must have been caused by medical negligence on the part of a doctor, nurse, or hospital, or by the use of a defective product. Spinal cord injury malpractice lawsuits generally fall into two categories: injuries caused by negligence and injuries caused by defective products.
For a case to count as negligence, the spinal cord injury must have been the result of an error on the part of the medical staff that attended to you. For example, in 2011 a young woman in California was awarded $7.6 million for her spinal cord injury malpractice lawsuit. An MRI showed that she had an abnormal mass growing on her thoracic spine but the hospital’s radiology department deemed her spine normal. As a result, doctors erroneously diagnosed her and she was discharged after receiving the wrong type of treatment. Four years later the mass ruptured, leaving her with a permanent spinal cord injury. She was able to recover damages on the basis that the radiology department was negligent when handling her MRI results.
Another example of spinal cord medical malpractice occurred in Virginia. A man saw his doctor complaining of stress and she prescribed a mild anti-anxiety medication. After several weeks, the plaintiff contacted his doctor complaining of tingling and numbness in his hands and feet. His doctor advised him to lower his dosage. Shortly after, he contacted his doctor again complaining that his symptoms had continued. His doctor told him to come in but made no note of urgency. During this visit, the doctor noted his symptoms as being "debilitating" but at no point did she perform a physical exam, instead recommending psychological counseling to handle his anxiety. A few weeks later he called again complaining of still worsening symptoms and he was advised that he could choose to visit the ER if he felt he needed to, though again no urgency was noted. The plaintiff was admitted to the ER two days later and it was discovered that he had been experiencing swelling of the cervical spinal cord. Due to the lack of action, he is now permanently disabled and brought suit against his doctor. After a week-long exploration of his case, a jury awarded him $6.5 million in compensation on account of his doctor’s negligence.
If a spinal cord injury was caused by a product then that can also be grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit. For example, if you are driving and your airbag faultily deploys and leaves you with a spinal cord injury then the maker of the airbag could be held financially responsible for your injury.