Surgery Complications

Recognising the impact of spinal cord injury complications

Updated: 14th Nov 2020
Spinal cord injury complications
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Medical Negligence Solicitor, Co-founder and Managing Partner - LLB (Hons) University of East Anglia, 1989

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The spinal cord is one of the most vital pillars of the human body. It is responsible for sending messages to and from the brain, and from the brain to everywhere else, making it responsible for movement, reflexes and recognising sensations such as touch, pressure and pain.

Unfortunately, it is also extremely delicate. Spinal cord injury complications can have significant implications for anyone who is inflicted with them, including restriction of movement, chronic pain, problems with bowel and bladder, sexual dysfunction and other long-term consequences.

Research conducted by Spinal Injuries Association, Aspire and Back Up – three of the leading spinal cord injury charities – revealed that an estimated 50,000 people in the UK live with this type of injury, with around 2,500 new cases each year.

In this article, we will provide you with information on various types of spinal injury and what causes them, including the uncommon but potential prospect of these occurring as a result of negligence by a medical professional, along with details of what complications can develop as a result of spinal cord injuries.

What are the different types of spinal injury?

To understand the different types of spinal cord injury, it is important to first know the three different areas of the spine where the cord is located, those being:

  • The cervical region, which covers the neck to the top of the ribs
  • The thoracic region, the longest region and covers the length of the rib cage
  • The lumbar region, which runs from the bottom of the ribs and includes the lower back

The level at which the spinal cord injury occurs dictates which muscles and body parts it has the potential to affect. For instance, an injury to the lumbar region will affect the lower body, which could involve complete or incomplete paralysis of the person’s lower extremities, leading to subsequent conditions like footdrop, as well as sexual dysfunction and bowel or bladder problems.

However, an injury higher up the spinal cord such as a substantial spinal injury to the cervical region can result in loss of function of all limbs, known as quadriplegia. This can cause potential breathing or swallowing difficulties if the injury occurred near the top of the spinal cord.

The complications from a spinal cord injury therefore depend on the location and the severity of the injury. Some of the syndromes which can occur as a result of a spinal cord injury include:

Central Cord Syndrome

An injury to the centre of the spinal cord, which is typically characterised by paralysis to the arms, hands and upper body of the patient, but may also result in impaired lower body function.

Brown-Sequard Syndrome

Damage caused to one side of the spinal cord, which leads to both motor loss on the side where the injury occurred and a loss of sensitivity on the opposite side.

Anterior Cord Syndrome

An injury that affects the two-thirds of the top of the spinal cord, typically characterised by complete paralysis with decreased sensitivity to pain below the level of the injury.

Posterior Cord Syndrome

This can occur following an injury to the bottom of the spinal cord, resulting in losing the senses of body position and vibration below the level of the injury.

Conus Medullaris Syndrome

An injury to the lumbar and sacral nerve roots in the spinal canal, leading to numbness, bladder and bowel dysfunction and lower limb weakness.

Cauda Equina Syndrome

This refers to the nerves at the base of the spine that branch out into the lower limbs, which resemble a horse’s tail. While technically not part of the spinal cord, it is classified as among these injuries and if untreated can lead to lower limb numbness/weakness, bladder and bowel problems and sexual dysfunction.

Because of the spinal cord’s vital role in our central nervous system, prompt diagnosis of these conditions and effective treatment, especially when surgery is required, is critical in managing spinal cord injury complications.

What are some of the primary causes of spinal cord injuries?

Spinal cord injuries can be the result of physical damage done to the spinal cord itself, as well as to the vertebrae, ligaments or discs that surround it.

This can be the result of a sudden or traumatic incident, such as a car accident, fall, physical activities/sports or following an act of violence. Alternatively, the injury might be the result of sustained pressure on the spinal cord over a period of days or weeks, which may be due to bleeding, swelling, bruising, inflammation or fluid build-up in these areas.

There are also non-traumatic causes for spinal cord injuries due to a number of conditions or diseases that affect the strength of the spine, including arthritis, cancer, infections or disc degeneration.

What are some of the notable complications after a spinal cord injury?

The presence or experience of a spinal cord injury can make someone more susceptible to further complications, which are sometimes referred to as secondary complications. These can often be chronic or long-term complications, and a medical professional should make a patient aware of these following their treatment or surgery for a spinal injury.

Some of the most common complications following a spinal cord injury include:

  • A greater likelihood of experiencing fractures, often as a result of osteopenia or osteoporosis, which are chronic conditions causing bone mass to weaken and deteriorate
  • Development of Deep Vein Thrombosis or Pulmonary Embolisms due to blood clots forming in the legs or other areas of the body
  • Orthostatic hypotension, which is a sudden drop in blood pressure following movement, which may result in fainting, sweating and increased heart rate
  • Autonomic dysreflexia, which is an onset of high blood pressure, leading to headaches, slowed heart rate, blurred vision, anxiety and other symptoms
  • Septicaemia, also known as blood poisoning
  • Pneumonia
  • Bladder and kidney stones

While those who suffer spinal cord injuries may never suffer any of these complications, they have a higher risk.

What spinal injury complications can occur as a result of spinal surgery?

Because of the inherent risks of a spinal cord injury to a person’s movement, mobility and other bodily functions, as well as the secondary complications listed above, surgery to repair spinal nerve damage is almost always performed promptly and with absolute precision to minimise the trauma the injury can cause, even if it is not possible to achieve a complete recovery.

A failure to spot signs of a spinal cord injury, such as the presence of compressed nerves or a loss of bladder, bowel and sexual function, or a mistake during spinal surgery can either lead directly to a spinal cord injury, or increase the risk to the patient.

Throughout our years of supporting clients with surgical complication claims, we have investigated and identified numerous cases of negligence. The cause of the injury may have been direct, such as the pinching of nerves during an operation or an incorrect incision resulting in further nerve damage. These are incredibly rare, but do sadly occur.

During spinal fusion surgery or instances where screws are required in order to repair the damage done to vertebrae in the spine, it is possible that the screw might be incorrectly positioned and enter the spinal cord, causing nerve damage.

An epidural during pregnancy might also cause direct pain or injury to the spinal cord. If the needle used to administer the anaesthetic is improperly positioned and leads to the spinal cord being penetrated, this can cause significant damage.

Finally, if a surgeon or another medical professional does not adequately monitor the patient following surgery, they may miss if any subsequent bleeding or swelling is putting pressure on the spinal cord. As we noted earlier, these injuries can sometimes be the result of sustained pressure over time. Therefore, if bleeding following surgery forms a hematoma or bruise that pushes against the spine, this will need to be drained promptly to prevent further damage being inflicted.

Determining if negligence resulted in a spinal cord injury

We hope you now have a stronger understanding of the different types of spinal cord injury, the complications that can occur as a result of these incidents, and why negligence before, during or after surgery can lead to further harm to a patient.

We want to emphasise here that the majority of spinal surgeries are performed professionally with the complete care of the patient in mind. However, this does not always lead to a successful outcome for those that suffer spinal injuries. In the rare instances where a mistake or inaction directly leads to a patient’s suffering, we are here to help establish what happened and ensure those affected receive the answers and the compensation that they are due.

Our dedicated medical experts at Gadsby Wicks take the time to thoroughly understand your experiences, explore the available evidence and apply their own knowledge and obtain the best expert evidence in order to determine the most likely cause of your injury. If it is determined that any surgical complications were the result of an act of negligence, we will guide you every step of the way towards a fitting settlement for the harm you have suffered and the lifestyle changes you have been forced to undergo.

If you have been affected by spinal cord injury complications and would like to discuss your case, get in touch with our medical negligence specialists today.


All content contained within this article is meant for general information only – this should not be treated as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor or another healthcare provider. If you require legal advice specific to your situation, please contact our team directly.

Gadsby Wicks is not liable for any diagnosis made from the content of this article, nor does it endorse any service or external site linked to within the article.

Always consult your GP if you are concerned about your health and wellbeing, or speak to us if you require legal advice.