Greater awareness of cauda equina syndrome ‘red flags’ needed

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Last year the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) published a report on the causes of delay in diagnosing cauda equina syndrome (CES).

The cauda equina report was released after multiple incidents where it was identified that delays in healthcare professionals diagnosing CES resulted in poor patient outcomes.

In his latest blog Tom Hartigan, an expert spinal injury solicitor from our Salisbury team, explains more about this rare but severe spinal condition and the ‘red flag’ symptoms that doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals should know.

What is cauda equina syndrome?

Cauda equina syndrome (CES) is an extremely serious neurological disorder in which all the nerves in the lower back become suddenly and severely compressed (sometimes called spinal stenosis).

If CES is not diagnosed and treated quickly with surgery, it becomes a spinal emergency and can lead to permanent incontinence, sexual dysfunction, and even paralysis.

Cauda equina syndrome is typically caused by pressure on the cauda equina, a collection of nerves and nerve roots in the lower part of the spine just above the waist. The nerves in this area control sensation and function in the lower limbs, bladder, and bowels.

CES can develop extremely quickly, although it can also develop more gradually. Early symptoms can often mimic other conditions (for example, back pain and bladder or bowel conditions), making diagnosing the condition difficult.

Cauda equina surgery must take place urgently to relieve the pressure and prevent permanent nerve damage. Unfortunately, even with treatment, some people do not fully recover if the damage is irreparable or surgery wasn’t performed quickly enough.

For this reason, any delays to a diagnosis or a missed diagnosis can result in severe and life-changing symptoms.

What are the cauda equina ‘red flags’?

With such a critical time frame to diagnose CES, it is essential that medical practitioners are aware of the condition and know what warning signs to look for.

The signs should act as red flags for cauda equina syndrome that will alert healthcare professionals to the possibility that patients may have CES and that immediate treatment is vital.

The critical ‘red flag’ warning signs include:

  • Back pain or sciatica
  • Lower limb weakness and changes in sensation, such as numbness
  • Saddle numbness – loss of or reduced sensation in areas where a person would sit on a saddle.
  • Urinary, bladder or bowel disturbance, such as urine retention or incontinence
  • Sexual dysfunctions, such as erection problems or loss of sensation
  • Referred pain
  • Poor tendon reflexes

How to make a cauda equina compensation claim

You may be able to make a cauda equina compensation claim if:

  • Your cauda equina was missed or misdiagnosed because doctors failed to investigate your condition correctly
  • You have developed CES due to negligent errors made in surgery
  • You experienced delays getting your condition investigated, resulting in waiting too long for appropriate treatment

Tom Hartigan says:

“While awareness of cauda equina syndrome is improving, the medical profession can still misdiagnose the condition or fail to act quickly enough on the ‘red flags’ and offer essential treatment in the correct time frame.

“Sadly, this can lead to permanent and irreversible damage and have a huge impact on quality of life. Securing compensation enables patients to pay for the help and support they need, making their daily life more comfortable.”

If you or a family member has been diagnosed with cauda equina syndrome, it is vital to speak to a specialist solicitor with experience in these types of claims. Call us on 0800 884 0777, email or complete our online enquiry form.

Novum Law’s specialist team is proud to be a business member of the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) and a legal panel member of SIA’s specialist Cauda Equina Spinal Injury Group.

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