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Cauda Equina
The Devastating Consequences of Cauda Equina Syndrome Being Missed or Misdiagnosed

The Devastating Consequences of Cauda Equina Syndrome Being Missed or Misdiagnosed

Imagine being 41 years old, incontinent, on crutches and trying to mother four children. That is the fate of a Reading woman, whose life changed dramatically when doctors failed to diagnose her cauda equina syndrome.

She now rarely leaves the house, is on a myriad of pills to help her cope with the chronic pain and her relationship of eight years collapsed under the strain of dealing with her condition.

In another case of doctors missing the signs of cauda equina syndrome, a former HGV driver was awarded £225,000 compensation after being left in permanent pain with limited mobility because two GPs failed to spot his rapidly advancing neurological symptoms in time and did not refer him for prompt emergency treatment.

As a result, he can no longer work and his marriage fell apart.

Why is cauda equina syndrome missed or misdiagnosed?

One of the reasons that cauda equina syndrome can go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed is because it is relatively rare. It involves extreme compression of the nerves at the end of the spinal cord. As you may have guessed, the name is related to horses, these nerves look like a horse's tail as they extend from the lower back and down each leg. Cauda equina is Latin for 'horse's tail'.

The nerves affected by cauda equina syndrome send and receive messages to and from the legs, pelvic region and feet. Causes of cauda equina syndrome include:

  • infections or inflammation of the lower spine
  • a severe ruptured disc in the lumber area
  • a tumour in the lower spinal region
  • congenital spine disorders

Those who lift heavy objects or have arthritis in the spine are also vulnerable.

The symptoms of cauda equina syndrome can vary and can come and go over time. They can also mimic other conditions. These varying symptoms mean that it can be difficult to diagnose the condition and your doctor must be vigilant if you present with any of the following symptoms :-

  • Severe low back pain
  • Motor weakness, sensory loss, pins and needles, numbness or pain in one, or more commonly, both legs/feet (which affects mobility)
  • Loss of reflexes in the extremities – toes/ankles/lower leg
  • A “dropped” foot or feet where the foot drags along or similar sensation
  • Saddle anaesthesia (diminished/altered sensation or unable to feel anything in the body areas that sit on a saddle)
  • Changes to buttock cheek sensation/pain
  • Recent onset of bladder dysfunction (such as urinary frequency, retention/difficulty in urinating or incontinence e.g. dribbling or worse)
  • Recent onset of bowel incontinence/altered habit other than simple constipation
  • Sensory abnormalities in the bladder or rectum
  • Recent onset of sexual dysfunction e.g. suddenly having trouble getting an erection or loss/diminished sensation during sexual intercourse

Your doctor owes you a duty of care. If your present with one or more of these symptoms and you are sent away with pain relief and not referred for a specialist examination to check for cauda equina syndrome, then you may have a claim of medical negligence if you subsequently go on to suffer as a result of the syndrome.

And if cauda equina syndrome is not diagnosed early and treated quickly, the suffering can be immense.

Diagnosing and treating cauda equina syndrome

Anyone suspected of having cauda equina syndrome needs to go to hospital straight way. Diagnosis is usually done by a physical examination, a review of your medical history and an MRI or CT scan. A myelogram which involves an X-ray of the spinal canal after injection of contrast material may also be performed. This procedure can pinpoint pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.

If cauda equina syndrome is diagnosed, it is imperative that you receive surgery immediately. When it comes to preventing permanent damage, speed is key. The best case scenario is when surgery can be performed within 48 hours following the onset of symptoms. This is why a missed or a misdiagnosis of cauda equina syndrome is so devastating; if the syndrome is dealt with early, a life of pain, reduced mobility and possible incontinence may be avoided. Bowel and bladder control may be restored over a number of years and radiation or chemotherapy can control tumours.

But if surgery to relieve the pressure on the nerves is delayed because your GP or another doctor has failed to spot the signs of cauda equina syndrome then the damage may become permanent.

Sufferers may end up confined to a wheelchair, or having to rely on crutches to walk. Chronic pain may also become a permanent fixture of their lives. However, the most socially isolating and devastating aspect is the loss of bowel and bladder control.

Because cauda equina syndrome is not widely known, it can be difficult for sufferers to obtain and receive the support they need, even from the medical profession. Patients are often left fighting, not only for reasonable healthcare, but for acceptance in a society that has little or no knowledge of the devastating disability they are dealing with every day.

How to claim compensation

If your doctor failed to diagnose your cauda equina syndrome you may be able to claim compensation. The money received can go a long way to assisting patients with ongoing medical costs, counselling to deal with the depression many sufferers develop as a consequence of their debilitating symptoms and adjustments that may need to be made at home to accommodate the use of a wheelchair.

To start the compensation process, you need to engage an experienced medical negligence solicitor who understands cauda equina syndrome. They will work with you to establish negligence on behalf of the health practitioner who failed to diagnose cauda equina syndrome. Expert witnesses and a thorough examination of medical records may be needed to establish a connection between the failure to diagnose cauda equina syndrome, your subsequent symptoms and reduction in the quality of your life. Your medical negligence solicitor will manage all of this for you and support you if your case goes to court.

In Summary

Cauda equina syndrome is a devastating condition. If your GP or another doctor failed to diagnose you or offered a misdiagnosis, then you may be entitled to claim compensation which can assist you in maximising your chances of recovery.

At Glynns Solicitors we have the expertise required to successfully act for people who have had cauda equina syndrome missed or misdiagnosed by a health professional. Please call us on 0800 234 3300 (or from a mobile 01275 334030) or complete our Online Enquiry Form and one of our solicitors will get in touch with you.

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At Glynns Solicitors we have the expertise required to successfully act for people who have had cauda equina syndrome missed or misdiagnosed by a health professional.

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