The spine is among the most important structures in the human body. It is literally the backbone of a person, and is responsible for protecting the spinal cord as well as providing stability and structure. Patients with bone and spine disorders can benefit from spinal implant surgery to strengthen and stabilize the spine.
All surgical procedures carry some risk. However, the risk of surgery does not excuse a negligent surgeon who fails to provide the proper level of care, putting the patient at risk of serious injury. When a doctor makes a mistake, it can have serious consequences for patients. If you suffered an injury involving a spinal fusion implant procedure, talk to your experienced medical malpractice team for legal advice.
What Is a Spinal Implant?
Spinal implant surgery uses devices to treat spinal problems. In a spinal implant surgery, a trained surgeon implants a device on the bones of the spine to stabilize and strengthen the spine. This type of procedure can be for patients who were injured in an accident or have spinal medical conditions, including scoliosis, degenerative disc disease, or spondylolisthesis.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, “spinal implant surgery treats vertebral compression fractures (VCFs) less invasive than traditional surgery. This usually means a shorter recovery time, less pain, and reduced risk of complications.”
Spinal implants are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as medical devices. This means that the materials used have to go through testing procedures for approval, including testing for strength, sterilization, and biocompatibility. Based on FDA tests, spinal plating systems are approved for use in surgical procedures but that does not ensure the surgery is performed according to the standards of medical care.
Spinal Compression Fractures and Treatment Options
The spine is responsible for providing strength and structure to the human body. The spine is also the structure that protects the spinal cord, which is responsible for much of the function of the central nervous system. The spinal cord is the central pathway connecting the nerves of the body to the brain and transmits information from the peripheral nervous system to the brain.
Problems in the spine can impact the entire body. Spinal injuries can cause complications, including:
- Loss of function
- Chronic pain
- Limited mobility
- Numbness and tingling
- Sexual dysfunction
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle weakness
Spinal problems can come from traumatic injuries or degenerative conditions. Spinal injuries can come from traumatic injuries like car accidents, falls, construction accidents, or sports injuries. There are also non-traumatic spinal injuries, including spinal cord infarction, stroke, or hemorrhage. Some spinal injuries at birth can continue to cause pain and functional limitations over the patient’s lifetime.
There are also medical conditions that can affect the spine, including scoliosis and degenerative disc disease. Scoliosis is a condition that causes curvature of the spine. Degenerative disc disease is a condition that causes pain, ranging from distracting to disabling.
Treating Spinal Cord Injuries With Spinal Surgery
The bones of the spine act to surround and protect the spinal cord, which is a very sensitive part of the body. Problems in the spine can trigger pain in the spinal cord and treating the condition requires strengthening the spine to take pressure off the spinal cord.
Spinal injuries can manifest in different ways, depending on where along the spinal cord the injuries occur. Between the end of the spinal cord and the brain, the spinal cord acts as a map to the human body functions along the path. The vertebra of the spine is made up of 33 bones, divided into the following sections:
- Cervical (C1 to C7)
- Thoracic (T1 to T12)
- Lumbar (L1 to L5)
- Sacrum (S1 to S5)
At the top of the spine, the cervical vertebrae around the neck have a wide range of motion, which allows the head to move around in all directions. Next is the thoracic spine, which connects to the rib cage, protecting much of the internal organs. The lumbar spine is the lower back and the sacrum connects to the hip bones. At the end of the spine is the coccyx or tailbone.
Areas of the body and nervous system are linked to the areas of the spinal cord and spinal nerves. For example, weakness in the areas of the legs can be linked to the sacral spinal nerves (S1-S5). In a related way, an epidural for delivery during childbirth is generally administered into the interspace between L2-L3, L3-L4, or L4-L5, which is the area that blocks the signals of feeling (and pain) from the middle of the abdomen to the upper legs.
In some cases, pain or dysfunction along the spinal column involves damage to one or multiple vertebrae. When the vertebrae don’t align properly, it can cause pressure or friction on the spinal cord. Spinal surgery can fuse together two of the vertebrae to add protection around the area of damage and take pressure off the spinal cord. This can improve stability and reduce pain but it may have some downgrade in mobility.
Strengthening the Spine With Surgical Procedures
A common treatment option for people with spinal conditions is spinal implants. Spinal implants can strengthen the spine and correct spinal deformities. Implants include both fusion and non-fusion varieties. Fusion implants are combined with bone grafts and non-fusion implants are done without grafting. Types of fusion and non-fusion implants include:
- Rods and screws
- Interbody cages
- Growth sparing units
- Artificial discs
Spinal implants have to be strong but also compatible with implantation in the human body to avoid tissue rejection. Many spinal implants are made from titanium or carbon fiber, which are strong, lightweight, and non-reactive to magnetism. Implants can come in different shapes and sizes or be custom designed to match the individual patient’s needs.
Spinal Implant Surgery
According to a review published in the journal Neurospine in 2020, “Since its inception, spinal surgery and the devices used therein have undergone constant evolution in order to:
- Meet the needs of surgeons who have continued to further understand the biomechanical principles of spinal stability; and
- Have improved as new technologies and materials are available for production use.”
When Spinal Fusion Surgery Goes Wrong
Spinal fusion surgery can be a lifesaver for the right candidate. However, when spinal surgery goes wrong, it can be devastating. Spinal fusion medical errors can cause chronic pain, disability, and paralysis. There are different ways spinal implant surgery can go wrong, from negligent surgical practices to unnecessary procedures. When a spinal implant surgery is not done according to medical standards, the injury victim may be able to recover damages through a medical malpractice lawsuit.
There are different ways a spinal fusion implant can result in malpractice. Types of spinal fusion surgical errors include:
- Unnecessary surgery
- Surgical site infection
- Anesthesia errors
- Defective medical devices
- Improper spinal fusion positioning
Examples of Spinal Surgical Errors
Unfortunately, spinal implant surgical errors are not uncommon. Even here, we have documented a number of spinal surgical injuries that have resulted in medical malpractice claims. Here are some of those examples of spinal surgery errors that have resulted in malpractice lawsuits:
- Improper surgical screw positioning: A patient in New Jersey was found to be a victim of medical malpractice when the orthopedic surgeon failed to adhere to surgical standards of care and improperly positioned a pedicle screw during a lumbar fusion procedure. The patient suffered significant pain, numbness, and weakness due to the screw position in the L5 nerve root, requiring remedial surgery to repair the damage. The injury victim recovered $2.25 million in damages.
- Fatal spinal surgery error: The family members of a victim of medical malpractice were awarded more than $4 million after a patient was fatally injured during a spinal fusion surgery. The patient was in his 50s when he underwent spinal fusion surgery to relieve pain and pressure on the nerves in the back. The patient suffered excessive bleeding and died from a blood clot in the neck.
- Spinal surgery for the wrong patient: The family members of a patient who died during a spinal fusion surgery alleged malpractice when a spinal surgeon performed a surgery despite the patient having many existing conditions and health risks. In a post-surgical negligence claim, the family members are seeking $15 million in damages.
- Doctor drug abuse and surgical errors: A jury in Washington awarded a patient $1.2 million in damages after a negligent spinal surgery case. The Department of Health records indicated the doctor had been taking narcotics on the day of the surgery and later entered an inpatient drug treatment program. The patient had to get additional treatment to correct the spinal surgery errors.
- Questionable materials used in spinal surgery: Dozens of patients filed malpractice claims after a surgeon in New Mexico allegedly caused serious injury during spinal procedures. The claims allege the anesthesiologist used fraudulent credentials to use a plexiglass-like cement to cushion the spine. However, the material was not safe and went into other areas of the spin before cracking or hardening.
Unnecessary Spinal Fusion Surgery
Medical care in the United States is expensive. This creates a financial incentive for some doctors and hospitals to provide procedures that may not be absolutely necessary. Some negligent doctors may prescribe or recommend unnecessary procedures as a way to increase profits. Spinal fusion surgery can be recommended for patients who can benefit from less-invasive procedures or patients who should not be going through the trauma of spinal surgery.
Surgical Site Injury or Infection
Opening up the body exposes the most vulnerable part of yourself to outside infection, including viral and bacterial infection from unsterilized surgical instruments. It is important to follow proper surgical sanitation procedures before, during, and after surgery. Unfortunately, some doctors, clinics, and hospitals take shortcuts and fail to properly sanitize and disinfect all surgical materials, which increases the risk of surgical site infection (SSI).
Anesthesia Errors During Surgery
Anesthesia is common in just about any surgery, including spinal implant surgery. However, just because it is common does not mean it is safe. Anesthesia involves putting serious drugs in the body to cause the patient to lose consciousness and not feel pain. However, too much of the drugs can stop the patient from breathing and even cause cardiac arrest. If an anesthesiologist does not properly administer anesthesia and monitor the patient, it can cause serious injury, permanent brain damage, or even death.
Defective Spinal Fusion Implant Devices
Many patients believe that if a doctor is using an implantable medical device that it is safe for use in the human body. Medical devices may be approved for surgery but are later found to be unsafe. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues recalls for medical devices that are found to be defective or unsafe. Some examples of spinal surgery device recalls include:
- Aesculap S4 Cervical Cross Connector: This device is used in spinal fusion surgery. According to the FDA recall, “Insufficient clamping force of the cross connectors in the spinal surgical system which may lead to movement of the connectors on the rods and/or microparticle abrasion.”
- Tritanium Posterior Lumbar (PL) Cage: This body infusion implant is intended to be for an open, less invasive, and minimally invasive intervertebral fusion procedure. According to the FDA recall, “The surgical technique is being updated to caution against misuse due to reports of cage fractures occurring intra-operatively and post-operatively.”
- Medtronic Intellis Spinal Cord Stimulator: Neurostimulators (external and implantable) are used for pain therapy. In this recall, according to the FDA, there was a software issue that could result in the inability to program the Intellis implantable neurostimulation device.
- X-CORE 2 Ti Core: This spinal vertebral body replacement device is part of a system used in spinal fixation. According to the FDA, an urgent field safety notice was issued because of the “Potential that insert will be unable to disengage from the vertebral body replacement device/implant.”
Is Your Spinal Surgery Pain a Result of Malpractice?
Most victims of medical malpractice are not sure that their injuries were caused by a doctor’s negligence. You don’t have to be 100% sure to file a claim. You can talk to a medical malpractice professional to get a better understanding of your case and whether your injuries were caused by medical negligence. Medical malpractice simply involves the breach of duty of a doctor who causes injury and harm to the patient.
An experienced spinal fusion implant malpractice attorney can review your medical records and look at your injuries to determine if there was a deviation from medical standards. They can let you know your legal options, how you can recover compensation, and how much your claim might be worth.
Contact experienced trial attorneys who have successfully represented medical malpractice victims and their families to recover financial compensation from negligent spinal surgeons. Call a malpractice lawyer to find out more about your case and what kind of damages you can recover. For a free consultation, contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162.