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Lumbar surgery mistakes, complications, and medical malpractice

In some cases, motor and sensory function can be restored if the surgeon and other providers act fast

One of the most dreaded complications of the lumbar spine surgery or procedure is the discovery of neurologic or nerve-related complications after the fact.

The lumbar section of the spine is located in the lower part of the back. Most people have five lumbar vertebrae, which are numbered L1 through L5. The nerve roots traveling through the section of the body handle some important functions that can be impaired or entirely disabled if the nerves are damaged.

During surgeries or procedures, lumbar nerves may be injured through direct trauma by surgical instruments. In some cases, surgeons don’t take sufficient precautions in their technique and accidentally lacerate or cut lumbar nerves. Sometimes these injuries can be surgically repaired, but other times they cannot—in other words, the injury becomes permanent at the very moment the surgeon makes the mistake.

Other types of lumbar nerve injuries may be reversible, depending on when they are diagnosed and treated. For instance, another common mechanism of nerve injury in the lumbar spine area is anything that causes compression of the nerve roots. Spinal nerve roots travel through bony areas that have a limited and restricted amount of space. Any condition that occupies too much space in these canals compresses the blood vessels supplying the nerves, which deprives the nerves of adequate nutrition and oxygenation. If this condition persists too long, the injury becomes permanent.

In the non-surgical setting, compressive lesions that could causes lumbar nerve cord damage include things such as tumors or abscesses (a collection of pus or infected fluid).

Following the surgery, though, nearby internal bleeding that forms a space-occupying hematoma is probably the most common villain.

With any type of space-occupying lesion that’s causing nerve or spinal cord compression, the key to reversibility is prompt diagnosis and treatment. The surgical response would typically be an emergency return to surgery to evacuate hematoma or abscess and relieve the pressure in the area. In some situations, surgeon may first order a stat (as soon as possible) diagnostic radiographic imaging scan, such as a lumbar MRI scan or CT scan, to identify the precise area where there’s a problem. When necessary, this gives the surgeon insight on where to focus the surgical efforts.

If the affected lumbar nerves aren’t decompressed quickly enough, it will likely leave the patient with a permanent injury. Lumbar nerve injuries are different depending on which nerves are involved. Some of the common serious permanent impairments for the lumbar area include:

• Paralysis from the waist down.

• Loss of sensation from the waist down.

• Loss of control of bladder function.

• Loss of control of bowel function.

• Loss of control of sexual function.

At Painter Law Firm, we have represented clients in Texas medical malpractice cases involving lumbar injuries caused by botched surgical procedures, lumbar punctures (spinal taps), and poor post-operative follow-up care.

In one case, a very healthy, athletic man in his late 60s went to a suburban Houston spine surgeon and hospital for lumbar fusion surgery to address chronic lower back pain. From the moment he emerged from anesthesia after surgery, he knew that he couldn’t feel his legs. The nursing staff and the surgeon’s physician assistant downplayed these complaints as being anesthesia related.

The next day, though, when physical therapists came to the patient’s room to get them up for therapy, he realized that he still couldn’t feel his legs. His surgeon kept him in the hospital for a few more days and during his admission, the patient and his wife were alarmed to discover that he had no bowel or bladder control, in addition to lacking any sensation in his legs.

Now, even a few years after the botched surgery and post-operative care, this once independent veteran has to wear adult diapers and catheterize himself every day. While he can walk, imagine the challenge of not being able to feel one’s legs or feet. Understandably, he experiences frequent falls. He described himself as feeling depressed due to being unable to take care of his family and home like he used to be able to.

The spine surgery expert whom we retained to review this client’s medical records testify that there was an ample window of time when this man’s impairments and problems could have been reversed with proper medical attention. There was a system failure in his care, including:

• Nurses failing to notify a doctor or surgeon on the night of the surgery when their neuro checks revealed that the patient had weak motor function and sensation in both lower extremities.

• Physical therapists failing to notify the doctor or surgeon when their assessments revealed the same findings.

• The spine surgeon ordered no tests or workup after the patient and his wife directly informed him of their serious concerns.

If you’ve been seriously injured because of poor lumbar surgery, or other hospital or surgical care in Texas, then contact a top-rated Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer for help in evaluating your potential case.

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.


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