What you need to know about spinal abscess – causes, symptoms and when you can make a compensation claim

A spinal abscess is a rare condition, but one which can have devastating consequences.

By definition such an abscess is in close proximity to the spinal cord, and – if it is allowed to grow and impinge upon the spinal cord – it can lead to paralysis. Therefore, if treated promptly a spinal abscess should not cause permanent injury, but if there is a delay in treatment the outcome may be very serious.

What are the symptoms of spinal abscess?

Spinal abscess can catch people unawares as initially it is likely to have no symptoms at all.

However, as the abscess grows it is likely to begin to exert some pressure upon the spinal cord, leading to the following symptoms:

  • Sharp and sudden pain, radiating to the arms and legs
  • Weakness in the arms and/or legs
  • Reduced or lost sensation below the level of the abscess
  • Raised temperature

As the abscess continues to grow, it may then lead to:

  • Paralysis below the level of the abscess
  • Loss of control of the bladder
  • Loss of control of the bowels

What are the most common causes of spinal abscess?

Spinal abscess most commonly arises as a result of bacteria finding their way into the spinal cord. Most commonly these are from the Streptococcus or Staphylococcus genus. Once bacteria are present, the body’s immune response is to send white blood cells to fight them; this in turn causes pus to form, and an abscess begins to grow.

Bacteria can find its way into the spinal cord, and spinal abscess can also be created, through:

  • Tuberculosis
  • Septicaemia
  • A dermal sinus (a passage between the spinal canal and skin which can form in utero)
  • A lumbar puncture
  • A foreign object such as a knife or a bullet
  • Complications of spinal surgery
  • Boils on the skin

How should medical experts react when you present spinal abscess symptoms?

A spinal abscess is a medical emergency. Doctors should therefore always be alert for symptoms which might suggest one could be present. A doctor in primary care (such as a GP or A & E doctor) should arrange for you to be admitted to hospital urgently if they suspect you have a spinal abscess.

When a spinal abscess is suspected, the following tests should be carried out:

Then, once the diagnosis has been made, you should be promptly given intravenous antibiotics, and an operation should be carried out to drain the abscess. Such drainage will take place under general anaesthesia, and it is a very skilled and delicate procedure due to the involvement of the spinal cord.

Time is of the essence in treating spinal abscess, so above all your treating doctors should be acting with urgency.

How do I make a claim for spinal abscess?

If you have suffered a poor outcome after developing a spinal abscess you should seek legal advice, as you may not have been treated as well as you should have been.

A claim might succeed if, for example:

  • There has been unnecessary delay on the part of your GP or an A & E doctor in getting you into hospital
  • There has been delay in carrying out an MRI scan to make the diagnosis
  • An MRI scan has been performed on the wrong part of your spine, or the diagnosis missed in another way
  • There has been unnecessary delay in getting you into theatre for surgery
  • There has been delay in giving you antibiotics

It is sensible to instruct a solicitor who is experienced in conducting spinal injury claims, and if possible, one who has particular experience in claims involving spinal abscess.

At Royds Withy King we have dealt with a number of claims where there has been undue delay in treating a spinal abscess, leading to permanent damage to the spinal cord, and causing tetraplegia. We have significant experience in conducting such claims successfully, proving negligence, and ensuring that the injured person is fully compensated, living in appropriate adapted accommodation if required, and in a position to receive care which they may need.