Your nerves play a vital part in the function of your body. They are in charge of sending messages and signals that allow you to move and feel certain body parts. Nerves are also responsible for helping the human body digest food, maintain a healthy heart rate, respond to stress, stay balanced, continue to breathe, and so much more.
One of the more serious consequences from surgical mistakes and negligence is post-surgical nerve damage. This condition can lead to chronic pain, loss of function, permanent paralysis, and more.
What is post-surgical nerve damage?
Post-surgical nerve damage occurs when your nerves become damaged from surgery. When any of your nerves are damaged, your body is no longer able to communicate with other parts of your body, affecting your ability to perform certain functions.
Examples of damage that can be done to nerves during surgery can include:
- Prolonged retraction
- Needle punctures (during anesthesia)
What are the symptoms of nerve damage?
Some common symptoms of nerve damage include:
- Burning feelings
- Digestive issues
- Feeling dizzy
Why nerve damage is such a serious injury
Aside from the potential for chronic pain, nerve damage can lead to serious complications such as:
- Muscle atrophy. Nerves carry messages from your brain to the rest of your body. Any disruption in that messaging may leave you unable to move on your own. Over time, your muscles can atrophy, and you can experience contracture over the joints.
- Altered sensation. In some cases, nerve damage can eliminate pain and sensations entirely. While a pain-free life may sound pretty good, it can actually be quite dangerous: imagine not knowing if you were sustaining a burn or a fracture, or not knowing you were developing a pressure ulcer. Along with the risk of additional damage from each of these secondary injuries is another serious risk: infection.
- Delayed healing. Damage to the peripheral nerves “can have an impact on healing, and slow down the healing mechanisms of soft tissue. This can be further exacerbated by muscle weakness, which can [have an] impact on the circulation of blood in distal limbs causing swelling and thus poor healing.”
- Loss of involuntary function and systems. Autonomic nerves control your organs. The vagus nerve, in particular, connects your brain to your digestive system and cardiovascular system. If a surgical error damages this nerve, you could be left unable to speak, eat, or even breathe on your own.
- Permanent paralysis. Surgical trauma, needle sticks, incorrect anesthesia dosages, untreated epidural abscesses – any of these can cause you to be permanently paralyzed.
What causes post-surgical nerve damage?
There are several different causes for postsurgical nerve damage, including:
- Injuries made to the nerve during the surgery
- Medical conditions that you already had before the surgery, such as diabetes or autoimmune diseases
- Scarring that forms over the wounds from surgery
- Not placing the limb in a comfortable or proper position during the surgery
- Improper use of surgical tools
- Incorrect or defective surgical equipment
- Failing to follow up or provide necessary treatment and guidance after surgery
While every surgery is a risk for complications, post-surgical nerve damage is most often caused by a mistake made by doctors, nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists, or other healthcare providers.
How frequently are patients diagnosed with post-surgical nerve damage?
Dr. Chris Centeno, one half of the medical team which “pioneered the specialty of interventional orthopedics,” claims that around two percent of patients suffer permanent nerve damage after undergoing surgery. However, the numbers may change depending on the type of surgery that you have.
Nerve pain after surgery is extremely common. In fact, the National Center for Biotechnology Information mentions that 10 to 40 percent of patients have chronic nerve pain from their surgeries.
Diagnosis and treatment for post-surgical nerve damage
If you believe that you have post-surgical nerve damage, it is critical that you seek medical attention as quickly as possible. There are certain diagnostic tests that your doctor may conduct – ultrasounds, MRIs, magnetic resonance neurography, electromyograms – to locate your nerve damage as well as to determine the type of nerve damage you are experiencing.
Damage to the nerves is categorized by degrees:
- First degree nerve damage (neuropraxia) is mild and temporary. If you’ve ever slept on your arm “wrong” and experienced temporary numbness or “pins and needles,” you’ve experienced first degree nerve damage.
- Second degree nerve damage affects the covers damage to the axon, which is the part that conducts electrical impulses.
- Third degree nerve damage affects the axon and endoneurium, which is connective tissue that runs the length of the nerve.
- Fourth degree nerve damage affects “axons and all the surrounding protective coverings.”
- Fifth degree nerve damage occurs when a nerve is split, torn, or sliced in two.
After you have determined that you have post-surgical nerve damage, your doctor will develop a treatment plan based on your symptoms. Here are a few of the most common treatment options for patients with nerve damage:
- Physical therapy
- Additional surgeries
- Medications and prescriptions
- Changing diet
- Electrical nerve stimulation therapy
- Platelet-rich plasma infusions
- Nerve block injections
Can I hold a hospital or surgeon liable for my post-surgical nerve damage?
If you suffer nerve damage from surgery, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit and recover damages from the hospital or surgeon where your surgery was performed.
Surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare providers are typically given a certain amount of leeway when it comes to surgeries and other procedures. Therefore, in order to have a viable medical malpractice lawsuit, your attorney will need to determine if an act of negligence led to your injuries.
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