Spinal Cord Injuries in Children & Legal Liability for Malpractice
The spinal cord is a tube consisting of nerve tissues that run from the brainstem at the base of the skull to the lumbar region near the base of the spine. Together with the brain, it forms the central nervous system. The spinal cord transmits messages between the brain and other areas of the body. Therefore, damage to this area can have devastating consequences for motor and sensory functions.
Incomplete vs. Complete Spinal Cord Injuries
The majority of spinal cord injuries are incomplete, which means that the spinal cord can transmit messages below the injury site, allowing the victim to retain some movement and sensation. Complete spinal cord injuries involve severed or compressed spinal cords that prevent movement and sensation below the injury site.
Large babies or babies in a breech position may face a greater risk of spinal cord injuries. If a doctor does not recognize and account for spina bifida, a birth defect that causes gaps in the vertebrae shielding the spinal cord, this condition can lead to spinal cord injuries during a traditional childbirth. In other cases, excessive pulling or twisting during delivery or the improper use of assistive devices, such as forceps or vacuum extractors, can lead to spinal cord injuries. A majority of spinal cord injuries affect the neck. These cervical injuries may be life-threatening or cause quadriplegia, which prevents a victim from moving their limbs or torso.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Spinal Cord Injuries
A doctor may suspect a spinal cord injury in a child who suffers from incontinence or paralysis in their limbs. A spinal cord injury can cause numbness and problems with reflexes and breathing. Other symptoms of a spinal cord injury may overlap with cerebral palsy symptoms. These include floppiness, stiffness, or spasms. Thus, a doctor must avoid misdiagnosing one condition as the other.
Timing of Symptoms
Symptoms of spinal cord injuries usually appear immediately or within a few days, while cerebral palsy symptoms may not appear for a long time.
In addition to a physical exam, tests such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs can help a doctor diagnose a spinal cord injury. X-rays and CT scans can identify injuries to certain vertebrae protecting the spinal cord, which may be a red flag for damage to that area of the spinal cord. However, neither of these imaging tests can uncover problems with the nerve tissue in the spinal cord. On the other hand, MRI imaging can identify problems directly involving the spinal cord, such as spinal tumors, lesions, or nerve compression. Meanwhile, spina bifida may be detected through a blood test before childbirth.
Treatment for Spinal Cord Injuries
Since spinal cord injuries cannot be cured, a doctor should try to prevent them if possible. For example, they may advise a C-section for a mother if her baby is very large, presenting in a breech position, or diagnosed with spina bifida. Otherwise, they should take extra care during childbirth to avoid injuring the spinal cord.
Once an injury occurs, a doctor will need to act promptly to mitigate the consequences. A child may need surgery to relieve compressed nerves, and they may receive corticosteroid drugs to reduce swelling in the area. If they have problems with eating, breathing, or bladder functions, they may need mechanical assistance to address those symptoms. Over the long term, a child likely will need therapy to help them lead a relatively fulfilling life and handle everyday tasks on their own. Through a comprehensive treatment program, a medical team can help prevent muscle atrophy, spasms, and secondary conditions developing from the spinal cord injury.
Compensation for Spinal Cord Injuries
Damage to the spinal cord may be permanent and affect many aspects of life. A child may need expensive treatments indefinitely, and they still may suffer from persistent pain. If an error in diagnosis, monitoring, or treatment caused a spinal cord injury, a family may want to consider pursuing a medical malpractice claim against any health care provider who was at fault. They would need to prove that the defendant did not use the appropriate level of care under the circumstances, and their child suffered spinal cord injuries as a result.
Like other medical malpractice claims, birth injury cases are more complex than most ordinary personal injury cases. Many states impose distinctive procedural rules, such as a requirement of submitting an affidavit or certificate of merit with the lawsuit. In an affidavit of merit, a medical expert who has reviewed the records confirms that a birth injury lawsuit has a legitimate basis. Experts also will need to provide testimony to support the plaintiff’s claims. Gathering these sophisticated types of evidence can be challenging without an attorney, so a family should seek legal representation as soon as possible if they suspect that medical malpractice caused a spinal cord injury to their child.