Spinal injury blunders by doctors devastating lives and costing NHS millions

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Spinal injury blunders by doctors devastating lives and costing NHS millions

Patients failed by the NHS in the treatment of a serious spinal condition that causes permanent disability and incontinence have been paid more than £43 million in compensation over the last six years.

*Official NHS figures obtained under the Freedom of Information request show 129 people suffered poor treatment of the condition cauda equina syndrome despite it being largely preventable with urgent surgery.

However, the number could be even higher as the NHS Litigation Authority has admitted that its system does not allow it to accurately record cases. 

Cauda equina syndrome is usually caused when a disc in the spine prolapses and places pressure on the cauda equina nerves at the base of the spine, responsible for bowel and bladder control, sexual function and sensation in the saddle area. It is a surgical emergency and when the first signs become apparent there is a 24-48 hour window to successfully operate and relieve the pressure before irreversible damage is caused. 

However, doctors often do not appreciate the urgency of the situation and fail to act. The patient’s cauda equina syndrome then becomes permanent and many are left unable to work, in need of adapted houses and care and suffer the breakdown of personal relationships. 

Eddie Jones, head of medical negligence at JMW Solicitors, which specialises in cauda equina syndrome cases, said in the last six years his firm had helped more than 20 patients to successfully challenge failures and was currently investigating many more cases.

He said: “The clients we have helped have had their lives completely devastated. Overnight they have gone from independent people with fulfilling personal and work lives to being disabled, largely housebound and in a fairly desperate situation. That’s extremely difficult for them to come to terms with and as well as the obvious financial consequences it is very common for marriages and relationships to break down.

“Sometimes it is a case of GPs not recognising the red flag signs and ensuring the patient receives urgent hospital treatment but frequently it is the hospitals at fault. The NHS’ own guidelines are not followed, vital scans and surgery are either not carried out until it is too late or done to a poor standard and the cost to the patient and the NHS in compensation settlements is huge.”

Claire Thornber, the founder of the Cauda Equina Syndrome Association, which she set up to support people with the condition and raise awareness of the red flag signs, said the NHS seemed to want to brush the issue under the carpet. 

Claire said: “Often patients are not even told they have cauda equina syndrome and find out much further down the line when they are referred for help to manage their symptoms such as incontinence and permanent pain. It is as if doctors are in denial that this is something that is, in most cases, completely preventable with good care. 

“However so much suffering could be avoided if guidelines were consistently followed and patients were treated properly the first time round.”

For more information about the Cauda Equina Syndrome Association (CESA) visit www.ihavecaudaequina.com. CESA offers training to healthcare practitioners in red flag awareness, peer support via online support groups and national meetings and advice, and advice on services that are available in the NHS and equipment to help with issues.

YearSuccessful CasesCompensation 
Grand Total29£43,461,267.95

What are the red flag signs of CES?

  • Severe back pain
  • Numbness/pain/altered sensation in saddle area that can radiate to legs
  • Urinary symptoms such as lack of urge to go, incontinence or inability to pass urine
  • Bowel symptoms such as incontinence or no bowel movements
  • Loss of sexual function
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