A mother of two has been left partially paralysed after doctors failed to diagnose cauda equina syndrome.

Claire Thornber, 42, had suffered with intermittent back pain since 2010. When her condition did not improve, she underwent an MRI scan which revealed she had a large central disc prolapse.

Three days after having the scan, she turned over in bed and suddenly felt a severe pain shoot through her lower back. She also developed pins and needles in her buttocks and upper legs.

With her husband’s help, she attended her GP surgery in the morning and was sent straight to hospital with suspected cauda equina syndrome, a neurological condition that occurs when the cauda equina nerves at the base of the spine are compressed.

Delay in diagnosis

Claire should then have been referred to a specialist spinal unit. However, the results of the MRI scan we not passed on. She was therefore diagnosed with spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spine – and discharged from hospital.

Claire’s condition continued to deteriorate and she returned to hospital the following evening. This time she was accurately diagnosed with cauda equina syndrome and taken to a larger hospital for surgery.

But there were not any orthopaedic surgeons available to perform the operation she desperately needed. There was also a disagreement amongst the doctors as to the urgency of her case.

Eventually she was listed for surgery the next morning, but kept being pushed down the list. It was not until lunchtime that decompression surgery was finally carried out – some 36 hours after the onset of her symptoms.

A medical emergency

This delay has proved devastating for Claire, as cauda equina syndrome must be treated within 24 hours, or a patient will not make a full recovery.

As John Reynard, urology specialist at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, explains: “If a nerve is being pressed on, its blood supply is being impaired and it will eventually die. The sooner you decompress that, the sooner you ensure it remains viable.”

The cauda equina nerves enable function and sensation in the legs, pelvic organs and saddle area (including the rectum, perineum and genitals). If the nerves are irreparably damaged, function and sensation will be lost, resulting in life-long complications such as incontinence, paralysis and sexual dysfunction.

Sadly Claire has been left with these complications. She has had to close her successful cleaning business and her marriage has broken down. She is facing a lifetime of pain and loss, all because doctors failed diagnose her condition.

Claire is now pursuing a claim against the hospital responsible. Unfortunately her case is not uncommon, as cauda equina syndrome has a disproportionately high number of medico-legal claims.

John Reynard suggests there is a lack of understanding amongst the medical profession, saying: “I’ve been involved with 100 cases now and I get the impression that some doctors don’t recognise the subtle signs that indicate nerve compression.”

Cauda equina claims

If you have been left with permanent complications because of cauda equina syndrome, please get in touch with us today to discuss the possibility of making a medical negligence claims.

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