Common Complications With Spinal Cord Surgery

Doug Mann

With any type of surgery, there is risk for complications and spinal surgery is no different. When surgery is performed near the spine and spinal cord, potential postoperative complications may become significant. Ohio law can classify spinal surgery mishaps as a form of medical malpractice, let’s review the law so you know your rights.

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Spinal cord surgery can save lives.

However, we have seen an increasing number of clients in the Dayton area with injuries as the result of mishandled spinal cord injuries. Before we discuss some of the most complications when spinal cord surgeries go wrong, let’s review the legal implications of this type of medical malpractice.

How are Post-Surgical Complications Evaluated for Liability? 

If you’ve suffered one of the post-surgical complications described above or other complications after spinal surgery, you may have suffered damages such as: 

  • Additional time in the hospital
  • Increased need for ongoing medical care and rehabilitation
  • Additional recovery time
  • Additional lost work 
  • Increased or extended pain and suffering 

In some circumstances, you may have substantial negative effects, such as ongoing increased pain, partial paralysis, or organ damage. And, you may be entitled to compensation for those damages. 

The first step is to determine whether one of your medical providers, a healthcare facility, or an equipment manufacturer was legally responsible for your injury.

It might seem like common sense that if you undergo surgery and emerge worse off, someone did something wrong. Often, that’s true–but not always. 

Medical Malpractice Claims

To establish a medical malpractice claim against the surgeon, the hospital, or another medical provider, you must demonstrate that the provider or facility did not meet the accepted standard of care in the field.

The threshold for filing a medical malpractice claim in Ohio is higher than that for filing a personal injury case, in that an Affidavit of Merit must be filed with the complaint. The Affidavit of Merit is a sworn statement from a qualified professional in the field that must include: 

(i) A statement that the affiant has reviewed all medical records reasonably available to the plaintiff concerning the allegations contained in the complaint;

(ii) A statement that the affiant is familiar with the applicable standard of care; and

(iii) The opinion of the affiant that the standard of care was breached by one or more of the defendants to the action and that the breach caused injury to the plaintiff

The affidavit is just the beginning. Once the case is filed, one or more expert witnesses will be required to establish the accepted standard of care and how the medical provider or facility failed to live up to that standard. 

Ohio Revised Code Section 2305.11

Under Ohio Revised Code Section 2305.113, medical malpractice claims are those that “arise out of the medical diagnosis, care, or treatment of any person.” Medical malpractice usually involves an act or omission that results in harm to the patient. Examples include a healthcare provider failing to inform the patient of all the risks of surgery or not properly sterilizing the area before performing a procedure. Other types of medical malpractice involve negligent hiring, training, or supervision of medical staff such as allowing an assistant to perform surgery when they aren’t qualified or licensed to do so. In a medical malpractice case, the claimant must prove the healthcare provider’s error was preventable and that their injury occurred as a result of that error. 

Defective Medical Device Claims

Establishing a product liability claim based on a defect in the hardware or other equipment used in your surgery presents a different set of challenges. Typically, a manufacturer is responsible for harm caused by defective products, even if they were not negligent. However, the fact that a screw didn’t hold or an implant migrated generally won’t be sufficient to demonstrate that the product was defective. For example, those complications could have arisen due to improper installation, or it may simply be something that sometimes occurs in the healing process, even if everything goes well. 

Like establishing that a medical provider hasn’t met the standard of care, establishing that a piece of hardware was defective or unsuited for the purpose it was sold for typically requires expert witnesses. 

If you suffer from chronic back pain or other limitations due to a spinal injury, disk degeneration, or other chronic back issues, spinal surgery can be life altering. But, no surgery is risk-free. If you’ve had spinal surgery, it’s important to be aware of some of the most common complications you may face. Otherwise, you might not connect them with your spinal surgery and might not seek the right medical care. 

Common Spine Surgery Complications

Some post-surgical complications are common to most or all types of surgery, while others may be specific to the type of surgery performed or higher-risk for certain surgeries. 

Common General Post-Surgical Complications

Adverse Reactions to Anesthesia

Adverse effects of anesthesia can happen during or after any type of surgery. Spinal surgery may put a person at a higher risk than some other types of surgery because it is typically done under general anesthetic. Though orthopedic surgeries like spinal procedures aren’t the longest type of surgery, the average time under anesthesia is above the median, at three hours and 17 minutes. 

Complications from anesthetics can happen due to allergic reactions, unusual sensitivity to the medication, drug interactions, underlying medical conditions, or because too much anesthesia was administered. 

Blood Clots

Blood clotting is also a risk of many different types of surgery. Spinal surgery doesn’t carry a special risk of blood clots (also described as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT). But, one of the reasons people are at risk of blood clots after surgery is that they’re largely immobile during recovery. When you’re not moving around, your blood isn’t circulating as effectively, increasing the risk of clots. That’s true even if you’re otherwise perfectly healthy and just don’t move around for an extended period. 

That’s why hospitals like to get you up and walking as soon as possible after surgery. If that’s not possible, they may use other exercises to get your blood circulating. You’ll also likely be treated with medication to slow clotting. 

Infection

Like blood clots and reactions to anesthesia, infection can occur after any type of surgery. However, an untreated infection after spinal surgery can have a range of serious consequences, including infection spreading into the area surrounding the spinal cord, necessitating further surgery. The sooner a post-surgical infection is treated, the better–this is not a “wait and see if it goes away” situation.

Some possible signs of post-surgical infection include fever, redness and swelling around the wound, heat around the wound site, increased pain, and liquid or pus oozing from the wound. 

Lung Problems

There are several reasons you may experience less-than-optimal lung function right after surgery. In some patients, the effects of anesthesia on the lungs linger shortly after surgery. In others, drugs suppress respiratory function, or time spent lying in bed keeps lungs from working normally. The effects of less-than-peak lung performance may range from low blood oxygen levels–which can cause confusion, high blood pressure, headaches, and other symptoms–to pneumonia. 

Your medical providers will likely encourage you to consciously take deep breaths after your surgery, try to get you upright as much as possible, and even recommend a respiratory therapist. 

Post-Surgical Risks Specific to Spinal Surgery

Spinal Cord Injury

Any spinal operation involves some risk of damage to the spinal cord, which contains nerves connecting your brain to various areas of your body. This type of injury may be temporary or permanent, and may or may not be repairable. The extent of the harm will depend on the nerves impacted, since each carries signals to a different part of the body. 

Ongoing Pain

One of the key motivators for some who undergo spinal surgery is to reduce or eliminate chronic pain. But, the outcome can be unpredictable. Your surgeon should talk with you before spinal surgery about the possible outcomes and the risk that the pain level may stay the same, or even increase. 

Even when spinal surgery is successful, pain may not resolve immediately after surgery. It’s important to communicate with your doctor about the pain you’re experiencing and follow post-surgical instructions.

Devices and Implants

Some types of spinal surgery rely on materials inserted or implanted. These may include rods, screws, and other hardware intended to provide stability during post-surgical healing. There are two distinct risks associated with this type of hardware. First, materials may be defective, or be installed imperfectly, meaning that they may break, shift, or come loose. 

The other risk is that the implant may migrate shortly after surgery, before healing has locked it in place. 

In either of these situations, additional surgery may be required to remove or replace the hardware. 

Talk to an Ohio Medical Malpractice Attorney about Your Spinal Surgery Complications

Not all surgical complications result from malpractice or defective materials. The best way to determine whether you may have a medical malpractice or product liability claim after surgical complications is to talk with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. The attorneys at Dyer, Garofalo, Mann & Schultz are dedicated to helping injured people get the compensation they deserve. We have decades of experience and have helped thousands of clients. 

To learn more about how we may be able to help you, call 937-222-2222. The initial consultation is always free, and there’s no obligation.

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