Secondary neurological deterioration in traumatic spinal injury: data from medicolegal cases

Bone Joint J. 2015 Apr;97-B(4):527-31. doi: 10.1302/0301-620X.97B4.34328.


We assessed the frequency and causes of neurological deterioration in 59 patients with spinal cord injury on whom reports were prepared for clinical negligence litigation. In those who deteriorated neurologically we assessed the causes of the change in neurology and whether that neurological deterioration was potentially preventable. In all 27 patients (46%) changed neurologically, 20 patients (74% of those who deteriorated) had no primary neurological deficit. Of those who deteriorated, 13 (48%) became Frankel A. Neurological deterioration occurred in 23 of 38 patients (61%) with unstable fractures and/or dislocations; all 23 patients probably deteriorated either because of failures to immobilise the spine or because of inappropriate removal of spinal immobilisation. Of the 27 patients who altered neurologically, neurological deterioration was, probably, avoidable in 25 (excess movement in 23 patients with unstable injuries, failure to evacuate an epidural haematoma in one patient and over-distraction following manipulation of the cervical spine in one patient). If existing guidelines and standards for the management of actual or potential spinal cord injury had been followed, neurological deterioration would have been prevented in 25 of the 27 patients (93%) who experienced a deterioration in their neurological status.

Keywords: Spinal injury; cervical collar; immobilisation; mobilisation; neurological deficit; neurological deterioration; secondary neurological deterioration; spinal cord injury; unstable spinal injury.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Joint Dislocations / complications*
  • Joint Dislocations / therapy
  • Male
  • Malpractice
  • Middle Aged
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / etiology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / prevention & control*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / therapy
  • Spinal Fractures / complications*
  • Spinal Fractures / therapy
  • Spinal Injuries / complications
  • Spinal Injuries / therapy
  • Young Adult