The nervous system is an integral part of the human body; every physical and mental function is impacted by it in some way.
There are three types of nerves:
Autonomic nerves control activities that are involuntary or partially voluntary, such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and temperature regulation.
Motor nerves control movements and actions by passing information from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles.
Sensory nerves relay information from the skin and muscles to the brain and spinal cord that enables people to feel pain and other sensations.
Because nerves play a part in everything we do, nerve pain or nerve damage can have a significant effect on every aspect of a person’s life.
One of the more serious consequences of medical negligence is nerve damage. While some nerve damage can be minor and temporary, other cases can result in permanent disability.
Incorrectly performed surgical procedures and improperly administered and monitored anesthesia are two major causes of nerve damage resulting from medical mistakes.
Some common surgical errors that can cause nerve damage include:
- Mistakenly severed nerves
- Improper use of surgical retractors or other tools and instruments
- Incorrect application of surgical tourniquets
- Accidental damage to the femoral artery
- Spinal cord injuries
Anesthesia mistakes that can result in nerve damage include:
- Incorrect administration of anesthesia
- Intubation (breathing tube) errors
- Nerve blocks or local anesthesia that is not properly administered can block blood flow to certain nerves, including those in the brain, causing serious and possibly lifelong disabilities. This can happen during childbirth when certain pain-blocking procedures are performed.
Errors in patient positioning, which can cause excessive pressure on a nerve or set of nerves, is another cause of nerve damage that can occur during surgery.
Some nerve injuries that can result from positioning errors include:
- Damage to the ulnar nerve at the elbow, caused by the patient lying on his arm for too long.
- “Drop foot,” which prevents a patient from flexing the foot up or down. This can occur when the leg is stretched during pelvic surgery to the point where the sciatic nerve is damaged.
- Shoulder nerve damage (in the brachial plexus), which can affect a person’s ability to use the hand. This can happen to a baby during childbirth if forceps or other instruments are used incorrectly.
Failure to diagnose some degenerative conditions may be another mistake that causes nerve damage.
Spinal Cord Injuries
The spinal cord, along with the brain, makes up the central nervous system. The spinal cord is the bundle of nerves that runs from the brain down to about the waist. A column of protective bones, known as vertebrae, surrounds this bundle of nerves.
A spinal cord injury is defined as any damage to the spinal cord that causes a loss of function to the body. Frequently, this loss of function is total or partial paralysis and/or a lack of physical sensation.
It is possible to suffer a serious injury, such as a ruptured disc, and not damage the spinal cord. Thus, broken vertebrae in the neck or back (i.e. a “broken back”) may be less serious than injury to the spinal cord itself.
When a spinal cord injury does occur, the extent of that injury often relates directly to the location (level) of the spinal cord where the trauma occurred. Injury to the cervical portion of the cord, the area associated with the neck, often results in quadriplegia, the total paralysis of the arms and legs. If the injury occurs to the mid-section of the spinal column or thoracic region, the result is paraplegia, the paralysis of the lower body. Injury to the lower spinal column or lumbar region can cause paralysis of the legs or loss of sensation and/or some loss of lower mobility.
Medical Mistakes that can Lead to Spinal Cord Injuries
Medical malpractice cases arise from negligence or misdiagnosis by a doctor or other practitioner. Common errors that can result in spinal cord injuries include:
- Mistakes administering anesthesia can cause epidural hematoma, which could result in serious injury to the spinal cord.
- Misdiagnosing a patient in the emergency room can result in moving a patient without proper stabilization, which can damage the spinal cord.
- Mistakes during spinal surgery caused by distraction, inadequate training or incorrect positioning can leave a patient permanently disabled.
There are many types of nerve damage with a variety of symptoms.
The most common signs of nerve damage include:
- Numbness, tingling, burning or a pins-and-needles feeling that does not go away. The feeling may radiate from the hands or feet into the arms or legs.
- Difficulty moving part of the body, such as an arm or leg. There may be weakness or complete paralysis. Patients experiencing this symptom should seek immediate medical attention.
- Constant sharp pain, burning, or tingling that starts in the lower back and travels down the back or side of one leg could be a symptom of sciatica or compression of the sciatic nerve.
- Unusual clumsiness, stumbling, falling and general lack of coordination or failure to sense the position of the body could indicate nerve damage.
- Incontinence or feeling as if you have to use the bathroom more often than usual can be a sign of nerve damage.
- Sweating too much or too little could be a sign that the nerves carrying signals from the brain to the sweat glands have become compromised.
- Loss of sensation or inability to feel that something is hot, cold or sharp. This can be temporary or permanent.
- Chronic pain can result when a nerve is damaged but not severed.
- Paralysis (paraplegia or quadriplegia)
Cauda Equina (Latin for horse’s tail) Syndrome
This condition, which requires emergency surgery, can be a potential cause of medical malpractice if it is not diagnosed and acted upon in time. The condition is named for the bundle of nerves extending from the lower end of the spinal cord, which resemble a horse’s tail. These are the nerves that control bowel, bladder, and sexual function, as well as the muscles and feeling in the legs.
Cauda Equina Syndrome occurs when a patient develops an epidural hematoma, a mass of blood that presses on the lower spine, right after back surgery. Warning signs include numbness and weakness in the legs and/or loss of control over the bowels and bladder. If an epidural hematoma is present, it is important to relieve the pressure by removing the blood mass as quickly as possible. Otherwise, paralysis or permanent nerve damage can occur.
Blood-thinning medication increases the risk of bleeding near the spine. Patients on these medications need to be watched more carefully since bleeding and subsequent pressure on the cauda equine nerves can occur from minor events such as a puncture from a small needle.
If numbness or weakness in the legs persists after the anesthesia has worn off, a CT scan should be ordered immediately to check for the presence of an epidural hematoma.
Legal Remedies for Nerve Damage caused by Negligence
Nerve damage can have a lifelong effect on a person’s quality of life and ability to earn a livelihood. If someone is disabled, the entire family is affected. Extensive (and expensive) therapy may be needed for years to come, in addition to assistance with daily living skills and transportation.
Illinois medical malpractice law is complex; it is important to contact an experienced team of lawyers who understand the process and are willing to fight for the compensation you and your family deserve.
If you or a family member has suffered nerve damage as the result of medical negligence, contact us at once for a free consultation.