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The spinal cord is responsible for transmitting neural messages from the brain to the rest of the body. The spinal cord allows us to breathe, feel pain, smell coffee, and walk down the street. Even though it is one of the most important organs in the body, the spinal cord is extremely fragile. Any damage or injury to the spinal cord can have serious and permanent consequences, including paralysis.
Spinal cord trauma involves physical injury to the spinal column or spinal cord. Spinal cord trauma can be caused by anything from a car accident to negligent medical care. The injuries caused by spinal cord damage can be devastating, requiring life-long care and costly medical bills. When a spinal cord injury was caused by someone else’s negligence, the injury victim should not have to pay the price. A personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuit allows the injury victim to get compensation from the party responsible for causing the damage.
Spinal Cord Injury Accidents and Medical Malpractice
The nervous system is made up of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and peripheral nervous system (nerves and ganglia). Nerve signals from the brain are transmitted through the spinal cord to the body and sensory neurons.
The spinal cord is a tubular structure of nervous tissue that is surrounded by protective layers. The spinal cord extends from the brainstem to the area of the lower back. The meninges are layers of tissue around the central canal, including the dura mater, arachnoid mater, and pia mater. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) runs through the central canal.
The spinal cord is protected by the bones of the spinal column. Individual vertebrae have vertebral foramen space surrounding the spinal cord. This allows the spinal column to be somewhat flexible while still protecting the sensitive spinal cord.
Any physical injury to the spinal cord can result in permanent damage. Damage prevents the brain from communicating with the nerves and ganglia at the point of damage and generally extends to the distal area beyond the injury.
Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries
There are many causes of spinal cord injury. Generally, spinal cord injury can be classified as either traumatic injury and non-traumatic injury. Non-traumatic causes of spinal cord injury (SCI) include degenerative conditions, infection, tumors, spinal cord infarction, spinal cord stroke, and cancer. For traumatic spinal cord injuries, the following will focus on causes related to personal injury accidents and medical malpractice.
Personal Injury Claims with Spinal Cord Trauma
Compression, dislocation, blunt force, or crushing of the vertebrae can injure the spinal cord. Any type of accident or injury to the back, neck, or head carries some risk of spinal cord injury. Some of the common causes of spinal cord trauma include:
- Auto accidents
- Slip and fall accidents
- Sports and recreation accidents
- Workplace accidents
- Physical assault
Auto Accidents and Spinal Cord Injury
Automobile accidents and traffic collisions are some of the most common causes of spinal cord injuries. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC), vehicle crashes are the leading cause of spinal cord injury. A car, truck, SUV, van, and even motorcycle have a significant amount of mass capable of traveling at a high rate of speed. When a vehicle crashes into a barrier, other vehicle, or pedestrian, it often results in serious injury, even with the protective safety devices available in most cars.
Drivers and passengers in a vehicle may be protected in a collision by seatbelts, airbags, and safety cages and crumple zones. However, even with all the safety measures, the force of a collision can cause spinal cord damage. Even a low-speed, rear-end collision can cause whiplash, which can damage the spinal cord at one of the spinal column’s most sensitive points.
Anyone outside the vehicle may be much more at risk of injury, including pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcycle riders. A helmet may provide some protection against head injuries but offers only limited protection compared to vehicles.
There may be multiple causes of a car accident, including bad weather, hazardous road conditions, and vehicle defects. However, driver negligence is responsible for most car accidents. In a personal injury claim, the injury victim can seek compensation from the negligent driver for damages. When a driver violates a traffic law or breaches their duty of care, the driver may be liable for damages, including:
- Medical bills,
- Lost wages,
- Loss of income potential,
- Pain and suffering, and
- Future medical costs.
Slip and Fall Accidents and Spinal Cord Injury
According to the NSCISC, falls are the second leading cause of spinal cord injury, just behind vehicle accidents. Many people think of a high fall as causing injury but even slipping on an icy sidewalk can lead to spinal cord injuries. Falling from up high can lead to compression, back injury, or neck injury which damages the spinal cord. Falls from slipping or tripping can lead to spinal cord injury when the victim hits their head or neck.
There may be a number of causes for slip and fall accidents. Many are caused by a negligent property owner who fails to keep their property in a safe condition. This includes apartment buildings, restaurants, offices, grocery stores, and shopping malls. Businesses that are open to the public have a duty to visitors to fix any hazardous conditions or warn people about unknown dangers. Premises liability injuries can include falls caused by:
- Torn carpeting,
- Broken flooring,
- Broken stairs,
- Loose handrails,
- Falling on an escalator,
- Lack of lighting,
- Icy sidewalks,
- Slippery floors,
- Uneven surfaces, and
- Blocked walkways.
Sports and Recreational Accidents and Spinal Cord Injury
Sports and recreational injuries account for about 8% of spinal cord injuries. This includes contact sports injuries where players tackle, hit, or collide with others. Recreational sports injuries can also involve individual activities where the participant hits the ground or a stationary object. Some of the sporting and recreational activities that can lead to a spinal cord injury include:
- Ice hockey
- Martial arts
- Track and field
- Horseback riding
- Riding ATV and off-road vehicles
The type of spinal cord injury generally varies based on the type of sport and mechanism of injury. For example, most hockey, skiing, diving, and football spinal injuries involve the cervical spine. Horseback riding and snowboarding injuries tend to involve the thoracic or lumbosacral spine.
The extent of the injury depends on a number of factors, including the severity of the trauma, area of spinal cord injury, and how quickly the injury was treated. Unfortunately, like all spinal cord injuries, the outcome often includes paralysis, which can be categorized as:
- Complete quadriplegia
- Incomplete quadriplegia
- Complete paraplegia
- Incomplete paraplegia
A small portion of patients suffering from a spinal cord injury experience complete neurological recovery.
Workplace Accidents and Spinal Cord Injury
Workplace accidents are another common cause of spinal cord injury. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has identified the four leading causes of fatalities in the construction industry, which consist of:
- Struck-by accidents
- Caught-in-between accidents
Falls, struck-by, and caught-in/between injuries also account for many spinal cord injuries. Construction and manufacturing industries have a higher rate of these types of injuries.
Workplace injuries generally fall under workers’ compensation instead of personal injury. Workers’ comp insurance is supposed to provide wage replacement and pay for medical bills related to an on-the-job accident. However, the worker is generally limited in their recovery and cannot file a personal injury claim for compensation, with some exceptions.
Medical Errors and Spinal Cord Trauma
Many spinal cord injuries are avoidable, including spinal cord damage caused by medical malpractice. When a doctor, surgeon, or health care provider fails to follow the standards of care, causing an injury, the health care provider may be liable for damages. This is the basis for a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Spinal cord injuries involving medical mistakes can be categorized as failure to treat an injury or condition that leads to spinal cord injury, or traumatic damage to the spinal cord during treatment.
Failure to Diagnose or Delayed Diagnosis
Spinal cord injury victims are often devastated to learn that their doctor should have discovered a problem but never noticed or never did anything about the problem. This is the type of experience many cancer patients face, where a suspicious mass or test results could have allowed for early treatment of the cancer.
Failure to diagnose a condition that causes spinal cord injury can involve a number of diseases, infections, or degenerative conditions, including:
- Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
- Blood clots
- Disc degeneration
- Epidural abscess
- Transverse myelitis
Unfortunately for the injury victims, it can be difficult to find out if the spinal cord injury was preventable or detectable at an earlier date. The doctors or hospitals may not tell the patient that they missed something in an early exam. It may take a medical malpractice claim before the patient gets a full picture of how they were mistreated and determine who is responsible for the spinal cord injury.
Errors During Surgery, Treatment, or Anesthesia
Other spinal cord injuries can be caused by direct trauma to the spine or spinal cord. Surgeries and procedures in and around the spinal cord must be taken very seriously. Damage to the spinal cord can occur during anesthesia, childbirth, back surgery, or spinal surgery.
Some common medical procedures that may pose a risk of injury to the spinal cord include:
- Nerve block
- Epidural steroid injection
- Lumbar puncture
- Myelogram contrast dye injection
- Lumbar fusion
- Spinal stimulation implant
Uncontrolled bleeding in and around the spinal cord can also cause a spinal cord hemorrhage, putting pressure on the spinal cord and possibly leading to permanent injury. Any surgical procedure also carries the risk of infection, which can damage the spinal cord. Blood clots, embolisms, or spinal cord stroke can also occur during medical treatment.
Traumatic Spinal Cord Birth Injuries
Traumatic spinal cord injuries can also occur during childbirth. Infants’ necks are extremely sensitive to pressure during labor and too much force can cause permanent damage, including paralysis. A spinal cord injury during childbirth can be caused by:
- Using too much force to extract a child from the birth canal
- Twisting or overextending the spine during delivery
- Use of forceps or a vacuum extraction tool
Damages and Costs of a Spinal Cord Injury
There may be limited options for treating spinal cord injuries and the damage is often permanent. The extent of the damage may depend on how quickly the condition was diagnosed and treated, as well as where the injury occurred on the spinal cord.
Area of the Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal cord injuries may be referred to based on the location of the spinal nerves in relation to the vertebrae. There are 31 spinal nerve pairs, as follows:
- 8 cervical nerve pairs (C1 to C8)
- 12 thoracic nerve pairs (T1 to T12)
- 5 lumbar nerve pairs (L1 to L5)
- 5 sacral nerve pairs (S1 to S5)
- 1 coccygeal nerve pair
The nerve pairs generally extend out to certain areas of the body. This can allow doctors to look for damage based on where the patient feels weakness, numbness, or loss of function. Temporary and permanent consequences of a spinal cord injury can include:
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle spasms
- Changes in sexual function
- Difficulty breathing
- Altered sensation
Lifelong Costs of a Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal cord injuries can impact every aspect of the injury victim’s life, including the lives of their families. Paralysis, paraplegia, and tetraplegia often require lifelong care. This includes making modifications to the individual’s home, vehicle, and workplace. Quadriplegics may require round-the-clock care for life.
According to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the estimated lifetime cost of a spinal cord injury depends on age, health, education, and neurological impairment. Estimated costs of the injury are:
- 25-year-old high quadriplegic: over $4.7 million
- 50-year-old high quadriplegic: over $2.5 million
- 25-year-old low quadriplegic: over $3.4 million
- 50-year-old low quadriplegic: over $2.1 million
Individuals with quadriplegia also have a much lower life expectancy. People with spinal cord injuries may be rehospitalized for:
- Genitourinary diseases
- Skin diseases
- Respiratory diseases
- Digestive problems
- Circulatory conditions
- Musculoskeletal diseases
Spinal Cord Injury Medical Malpractice Lawsuits
If a loved one suffered a brain injury to an accident or medical malpractice, talk to an experienced attorney about your options for recovery. Do not hesitate to contact Gilman & Bedigian today for a free consultation.