Some common types of spinal infections include:
- Vertebral osteomyelitis: occurring in the spinal bones, this is the most common form of spinal infection and is reported to occur in 1 in every 250,000 people.
- Discitis: your intervertebral discs have a very poor blood supply, so the blood cells there find it very difficult to fight off an infection.
- Spinal epidural abscess: this refers to an infection in the space between the vertebrae and the membrane around the spinal cord. It’s one continuous space from the head to the base of the spine, which means infections spread quickly when they occur here.
- Spinal meningitis: occurring in the tissues around the brain and spine, spinal meningitis can spread quickly, causing severe complications within hours.
- Spinal tuberculosis: this is an infection of one or more vertebrae. If the infection affects two vertebrae that are next to each other, the adjoining disc will also become infected.
A spinal infection, while rare, can have devastating consequences if it’s not treated properly and in good time. The bones can become weak and unstable, and can erode away. As pressure builds on the nerves of the spinal cord, it can cause loss of bodily functions and paralysis. In extreme cases, a spinal infection can even lead to death.
All this means it’s important that proper treatment is given without delay. If you or a loved one has suffered harm due to a late or misdiagnosed spinal infection, you may be able to bring a spinal injury claim against the healthcare professionals responsible. We take you through the symptoms and diagnosis procedure, as well as how to make a medical negligence claim.
How do you get a spinal infection?
The most common way to get a spinal infection is through the spreading of an infection from another part of the body. The most common origin is through a urinary tract infection or an infected wound. The bacteria causing the infection can travel from the original site, through your bloodstream and infect your spine. The infection can remain in the spine even after it’s cleared up where it first occurred.
An infection may also develop after you’ve had spinal surgery or an injection into the spine. This will usually show up in the first 2-3 weeks after the operation or injection, but it can take as long as three months. The risk of a spinal infection occurring in this way is low, accounting for 2-4% of routine surgeries.
While anybody can get a spinal infection, there are risk factors that make you more vulnerable. These include:
- Kidney failure
- HIV or AIDS
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Poor nutrition
- Being elderly
What are the symptoms of spinal infection
Symptoms of a spinal infection will vary depending on what’s causing the infection, where the infection is located and what damage it’s already done. The symptoms can be subtle for some people, and severe for others. Some of the symptoms of a spinal infection include:
- Pain in a localised area of your spine
- Pain radiating down your arms or legs
- Stiffness and decreased range of motion
- Fever or chills
- Night sweats
- Loss of appetite
If left untreated, the infection can lead to myelopathy which is compression of any of the nerves in the spinal cord, or cauda equina syndrome which is compression of the nerves at the base of the spinal cord. Both of these conditions can cause paralysis, bladder and bowel incontinence and sexual dysfunction. If the infection has reached this stage, you may notice weakness or numbness in your arms and/or legs, and you may have trouble either going to the toilet or suffer from incontinence.
How is a spinal infection diagnosed?
It can be difficult to diagnose an infection of the spine as symptoms can be subtle in the early stages. This, combined with the fact that spinal infections are a rare occurrence, mean diagnosis is often delayed. What’s more, it can take more than a month to confirm the diagnosis, once a spinal infection is suspected.
If a doctor thinks you may have a spinal infection, they may order several diagnostic tests, including:
- Blood tests to identify whether an infection is present.
- Imaging tests – such as X-rays, MRIs, CT scans and bone scans – to locate the site of the infection and discover the extent of the issue.
- Blood cultures to determine the type of bacteria or fungus that is causing the infection.
Making a spinal injury claim
Given the difficulty and length of time it can take to confirm a diagnosis, it’s not surprising that delayed diagnosis and misdiagnoses occur. And when they do, they can have serious consequences, worsening an existing condition or causing life-altering spinal injury.
If this happens to you, you may be entitled to compensation. This includes circumstances where the injury has left you bedbound or wheelchair-bound and/or where you’ve suffered pressure sores due to the injury.
To bring a claim of medical negligence against the NHS or your private medical provider, you need to be able to prove that they breached their ‘duty of care’ to ensure your safety and wellbeing, and that their actions directly caused your spinal injury.
You have three years from when the negligence occurred – or from when you discovered that negligence caused your injury – to make your claim. Medical negligence cases can be complex and take a long time to investigate, so we recommend getting expert advice as soon as you realise something has gone wrong.
To find out if you have a case, or learn more about what’s involved, contact us for a no-obligation conversation.