Brain Injury and Medical Malpractice

The prevalence of brain injury in the United States is alarming as it is the second leading cause of disability in the country. Often referred to as the silent epidemic, approximately 3.17- 5.3 million Americans suffer from traumatic brain injuries, another 4.7 million have brain injuries from strokes, and another 500,000 have cerebral palsy (brain injury due to an event of oxygen deprivation). Causes of brain injury that may give rise to a medical malpractice lawsuit are further described below: 

iStock_000013877415XSmall-1.jpg

Brain Injury from Birth: a medical malpractice lawsuit may arise may when a child's brain is negligently deprived of oxygen during pregnancy, labor and delivery. This may result in the child later developing cerebral palsy, mental retardation, seizures, blindness, deafness, and learning disabilities. Oxygen deprivation that injures a baby's brain may arise from any of the following events: 

*Compression of the umbilical cord during delivery

*Maternal Infection present during the pregnancy or delivery

*Placental abruption or uterine rupture prior to birth

*Maternal high blood pressure during the pregnancy (preclampsia)

*Breeched vaginal position of the baby (feet first rather than head first)

*Improper administration or doasage of epidural or labor inducing drugs during the delivery

*Failure to timely perform an emergency c-section

*Fetal macrosomia (oversized baby) unable to navigate the birth canal 

Brain Injury in Adults and Children: a medical malpractice lawsuit may arise as a result of errors in diagnosis and treatment of a serious medical condition. A few of the causes of brain injury in children and adults that may involve medical malpractice include: 

*Medication errors

*Anesthesia errors

*Surgical errors

*Radiology errors 

*Emergency room errors

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of heart attack or cardiac arrest

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of a stroke, aneurysm, or blood clot

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of meningitis or encephalitis

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of a spreading infection or abscess

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of internal bleeding

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of hydrocephalus 

*Delay in diagnosis/treatment of diabetes/diabetic coma/insulin shock

In addition to the above mentioned causes of brain injury, many other errors involving patient treatment and care may give rise to a lawsuit.  One of the most common causes occurs when a hospital patient or nursing home patient falls (due to inadequate protective measures) and the patient suffers a traumatic brain injury.  In fact, falls are the leading cause of traumatic brain injury in our country surpassing even motor vehicle accidents. For a detailed guide to the incidence, prevalence, and epidemiology of brain injury, see The Essential Brain Injury Guide prepared under the auspices of the Brain Injury Association of America.     

Meningitis and Medical Malpractice

Meningitis is inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. It is commonly caused by infection, but other causes include chemical irritants, drug allergies, fungi, and tumors. Based on the clinical evolution of the illness and the type of inflammatory exudate present in the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), infectious meningitis is categorized into acute pyogenic (usually bacterial), aseptic (usually viral), and chronic (usually tuberculosis, spirochetal, cryptococcal).

iStock_000003651637XSmall.jpg

Early diagnosis is essential for bacterial meningitis because it can result in death or brain damage if left untreated. In bacterial meningitis, a correlation exists between bacterial organism and age. The most likely organism in neonates may be Escherichia Coli or group B Streptococci. In the elderly, it may be Streptococcus Pneumonia or Listeria Monocytogenes. In young adults, it may be Neisseria Meningitides. In contrast, most viral infections are due to enteroviruses but only a small number of people who develop enteroviral infections present with meningitis. Other viral infections that can cause meningitis include mumps, herpes virus, measles, and influenza. Chronic meningitis can be caused by pathogens such as mycobacteria and spirochetes. Thus, medical attention is necessary to differentiate between bacterial, viral, and chronic meningitis.

Risk factors include individuals over the age of 60 or below the age of 5, diabetes mellitus, renal or adrenal insufficiency, hypoparathyroidism, cystic fibrosis, immunosuppression, HIV, crowding (military recruits and college residents), recent exposure to those with meningitis, etc. The symptoms have a rapid onset and include fever, chills, mental status changes, nausea, vomiting, photophobia, severe headache, and meningismus (stiff neck). Additional symptoms include agitation, bulging fontanelles, decreased consciousness, tachypnea, poor feeding or irritability in children, and opisthotonos (unusual posture, with head and neck arched backwards).

To confirm a diagnosis, a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) should generally be performed on anyone suspected of meningitis to sample and culture the CSF for abnormal cell counts, glucose, and protein. Other diagnostic tests include blood culture, chest x-ray, and MRI or CT scan of the head. The underlying cause of the meningitis needs to be determined to administer proper treatment and define the severity of each case. Unlike bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis usually does not involve treatment and patients generally recover within two weeks; however, in certain instances (such as with the herpes simplex virus) antiviral medications may be indicated.

Antibiotic treatment for bacterial meningitis is dependent on the underlying bacterium. By treating the most common types, the risk of dying is reduced to below 15%. Symptoms such as brain swelling, shock, and seizures are treated with other medications and intravenous fluids. Possible complications of meningitis include brain damage, subdural effusion, hearing loss, hydrocephalus, and seizures. To prevent contraction of meningitis, the meningococcal vaccination is recommended for populations at risk.

 

Advanced Diagnostic Imaging for Acquired Brain Injury

One of the first steps in evaluating brain injury is diagnostic imaging. Imaging refers to various methods of viewing the structures and processes residing in the brain. Some of the more familiar modalities are CT (or CAT) scans, which use X-rays to evaluate intracranial structures. MRI, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, uses magnetic fields to illustrate the brain. However, in cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI), more advanced methods may be needed for proper diagnosis.

iStock_000000113655XSmall.jpg

An MRI machine can use special software to perform a brain scan called Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI). This scan detects the diffusion of water across brain cells and highlights certain areas that may be associated with injury. These injuries may not be apparent on conventional MRI’s.

PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography) measures uptake and metabolism of glucose from a small radioactive “tagged” sample injected into the patient.  The scanner monitors this sample as the brain utilizes it. The metabolic uptake and usage may differ in patients who have suffered a brain injury. This helps define the extent and type of injury.

In SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography), the tagged sample is not absorbed or utilized in the brain cells. Instead, it remains in the blood stream and demonstrates the blood movement or perfusion through the brain. Areas of brain injury or damage may not have normal blood flow so the SPECT scan helps define these areas.

Brain injuries can result from medical malpractice. A baby may suffer birth trauma during labor and delivery. A child may have a concussion or sports injury misdiagnosed or improperly evaluated by a physician. An individual injured in a car accident may not have the indicated testing done by the emergency room. Although scientific progress in imaging studies has improved the ability to diagnose and evaluate brain injuries, these tests need to be utilized in the appropriate situations so patient results and outcomes can improve.  

Hydrocephalus and Medical Malpractice

Hydrocephalus is also known as "water in the brain."  It is a condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the ventricles, which are cavities in the brain.  In infants with hydrocephalus, CSF builds up in the central nervous system, causing the soft spot near the front of the scalp, known as the anterior fontanelle, to bulge and the head to be larger than expected. There is also a soft spot near the back of the head known as the posterior fontanelle. Early symptoms may include sundowning, which is when the eyes appear to gaze downward; irritability; seizures; separated scalp sutures; sleepiness; and vomiting.

In newborns with hydrocephalus, the head circumference rapidly enlarges and may surpass the 97th percentile when measured at pediatric visits.  If the skull bones have not yet firmly joined together at this age, bulging, firm anterior and posterior fontanelles may be present when the patient is in an upright position. The infant may exhibit fretfulness, poor feeding, and frequent vomiting.

As the hydrocephalus progresses, torpor, a state of sluggishness and reduced metabolism, sets in and the infant shows lack of interest in his/her surroundings. In a later stage, the upper eyelids become retracted and the eyes turn downwards (due to hydrocephalic pressure on the mesencephalic tegmentum and paralysis of upward gaze). Movements become weak and the arms may become tremulous.  There may be reduction of vision. Over time, the head becomes so enlarged that the growing child becomes bedridden and he/she is unable to lift or even move this huge object attached to its neck.

Hydrocephalus is diagnosed through clinical neurological evaluation and by using cranial imaging techniques such as ultrasonography, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or pressure-monitoring techniques. The most common initial diagnostic test to determine hydrocephalus is an image of the brain (CT Scan or MRI) to identify the enlarged ventricles (spaces) within the brain that are typical of hydrocephalus.  

Hydrocephalus is often treated with the surgical placement of a shunt system. This system diverts the flow of CSF from a site within the central nervous system (CNS) to another area of the body where it can be absorbed.  A shunt is a flexible but sturdy tube composed of silicone and plastic.   A shunt system consists of a shunt tube, a catheter, and a valve. One end of the catheter is placed into one of the dilated a ventricles inside the brain.  Depending on the situation, it could also be placed into a cyst or somewhere near the spinal cord. The other end of the catheter is usually placed within the abdominal cavity.  It could also be placed into any area, such as the heart, where the extra cerebrospinal fluid can be drained and absorbed.  The valve located along the catheter maintains one-way flow and regulates the rate of CSF flow.

Hydrocephalus can be effectively treated with a shunt; however, there is still a potential for complications. The shunt can become blocked. Symptoms of blockage include headache and vomiting. There may be other problems with the shunt such as kinking, tube separation, or infection in the area of the shunt. Other complications may include infections such as meningitis or encephalitis, intellectual impairment, and nerve damage.  Untreated hydrocephalus has a 50-60% death rate. Survivors have varying degrees of intellectual, physical, and neurological disabilities.  

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus and Medical Malpractice

iStock_000015502953XSmall.jpgCerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is a clear fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. This fluid is continually produced and stored in ventricles, which are cavities of the brain. CSF cushions the brain, supplies the brain with nutrients, and removes wastes.  Excess fluid drained from the brain is absorbed by other tissues.

Hydrocephalus is a condition in which there is an abundance of CSF in the ventricles due to interference in proper drainage and absorption. To accommodate the extra fluid, the ventricles enlarge causing compression of  different parts of the brain.

Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is a type of hydrocephalus that occurs commonly in older adults. NPH is different from other types of hydrocephalus because it develops gradually. The slow enlargement of the ventricles causes the fluid pressure in the brain to not be as high as in other types of hydrocephalus. However, the enlarged ventricles still press on normal brain tissue

NPH often presents with the following clinical triad of findings: urinary incontinence, gait disturbance, and dementia, with urinary symptoms appearing later in the sequence.  Gait disturbance is often the initial and most prominent symptom of the triad. It may be progressive due to the expansion of the ventricular system. It generally presents as unsteadiness or impaired balance. Eventually, gait disturbances can lead to a need for canes or walkers. An increased tendency to fall backwards is also common. In the very late stages, the patient can progress to an inability to stand, sit, and rise from a chair. 

Dementia presents as apathy, forgetfulness, and a dullness of thinking. Memory problems are often predominant, which can contribute to a misdiagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. Although recall is severely impaired in NPH, recognition, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, is either normal or slightly impaired.

Idiopathic NPH is normal pressure hydrocephalus occurring without a known cause; however, it can be attributed to any condition that blocks the flow of CSF such as bleeding from an abnormal blood vessel, an aneurysm, a closed head injury, meningitis or similar infections, and surgery on the skull.

The diagnosis of NPH is made by performing a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). If the initial pressure measurement is elevated, it points to a diagnosis of NPH. Clinical improvement after removal of CSF has a high predictive value for treatment success.  A CT scan of the brain will show enlarged ventricles, and an MRI may show certain technical findings consistent with enlarged ventricles and elevated cerebral pressures. Imaging alone cannot differentiate between NPH and other dementia causing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Atherosclerotic vascular disease, and Parkinson’s disease.  

Treatment for NPH is surgical diversion of the excess CSF. A shunt is implanted to drain CSF from the intracranial ventricular system to a different location such as the peritoneal space in the abdomen. The most common shunts utilized today are called the ventriculoperitoneal (VP) and ventriculoatrial (VA) shunts.  Placement of a shunt is a neurosurgical procedure performed under general anesthesia, and usually takes less than an hour to complete. Cognitive impairment associated with dementia has been reported to improve in more than fifty percent of cases. Successful treatment for NPH is available; therefore, it is medicaly negligent to misdiagnose NPH as Alzheimer’s dementia, where responses to the latest therapy innovations are only temporary.   

Pituitary Adenomas and Medical Malpractice

A pituitary adenoma is generally a benign, slow growing tumor that occurs in the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a small, bean shaped structure that lies at the base of the brain. It has a central role in the regulation of hormones that affect the body such as Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), Growth hormone (GH), Prolactin, and Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).

Approximately 1 in 1,000 individuals have pituitary adenomas. They are generally not cancerous but may invade nearby structures.  They are classified based on size. A microadenoma is less than 1 cm in diameter whereas a macroadenoma is larger than 1 cm in size.

iStock_000017548218XSmall.jpgBased on whether the pituitary adenoma is a hormone-producing or hormone-inactive tumor, the patient will present with different symptoms. Hormone-producing tumors will make excessive amounts of an active hormone so symptoms present as a hormonal imbalance. The three most common hormone-producing adenomas are Prolactinomas, Growth hormone-secreting pituitary adenoma, and ACTH-secreting pituitary adenoma.

If the patient has a large hormone-inactive or hormone-producing tumor, it may compress surrounding brain structures due to its size.  Large pituitary tumors may compress the pituitary gland contributing to pituitary failure, which can lead to sexual dysfunction, inadequate body cortisol levels, and hypothyroidism. Other possible presentations relating to compression of brain structures include visual loss, headache, the “stalk effect”, and pituitary apoplexy.  The “stalk effect” is due to the compression of the pituitary stalk, the structure connecting the brain to the pituitary gland, which leads to a mild elevation in the hormone prolactin. Higher levels of prolactin in females can contribute to irregular menstrual cycles. Pituitary apoplexy presents with an abrupt headache and visual loss. It can occur under two different situations. The pituitary adenoma can bleed internally causing a sudden increase in size or the tumor can outgrow its blood supply and the dead tissue will swell.

Pituitary adenomas can be diagnosed based on endocrine function testing, imaging, and visual field testing. Often times, visual problems may be the only symptom present.  Optometrists and ophthalmologists should seriously consider the possibility of a pituitary tumor when the patient presents with an unexplained loss of visual field (especially peripheral vision), double vision, or blurred vision as the growth of a pituitary tumor can cause compression on the visual pathway (retina, optic nerve, etc). A delay in diagnosis of a pituitary adenoma may result in permanent loss of vision due to the damage caused by this compression. Endocrine function testing evaluates cortisol, follicle-stimulating hormone, lutenizing hormone, insulin growth factor-1, prolactin, testosterone/estradiol, and thyroid hormone levels. The preferred method of imaging is MRI, which screens for adenomas larger than 4 mm.

Treatment for pituitary adenomas depends on the presence of hormone production, size of the tumor, invasion of the tumor into surrounding structures, and the age and health of the patient. Drug therapy is used to treat hormone-producing tumors. For example, bromocriptine and cabergoline are used to treat tumors secreting prolactin because these medications decrease prolactin levels and tumor size. Pituitary adenomas that require surgery are usually minimally invasive techniques, where the tumor is removed through the nose.  On the other hand, radiation therapy involves high doses of radiation being delivered to the tumor. It is a treatment utilized for pituitary adenomas that cannot be controlled by drug therapy or surgical intervention. Patients have the best outlook when the entire tumor can be removed. 

Lumbar Puncture - Indications and Usage

Lumbar puncture is a procedure performed in the lower back area, where a needle is inserted between two vertebrae to remove a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The patient flexes his/her back to widen the spaces between the vertebrae so it is easier for the physician to access the region. The back is washed with antiseptic soap or iodine and covered with a sterile sheet. A local anesthetic is used to numb the area and then a thin hollow needle is inserted through the spinal membrane and into the spinal canal. During this portion of the procedure, the patient generally feels pressure. The CSF pressure is measured, a small amount of fluid is removed, and the pressure is measured again. The needle is removed and the site is bandaged. The total procedure takes about 45 minutes.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for iStock_000016020161XSmall.jpgLumbar puncture is used to collect CSF for analysis to help in diagnosing conditions such as subarachnoid hemorrhage (typically caused by ruptured aneurysm or traumatic brain injury), meningitis (inflammation of the membranes around the brain), and cancers of the brain or spinal cord. Lumbar Puncture may also be utilized to inject anesthetic medications, chemotherapeutic drugs, contrast material, or radioactive substances into CSF. 

Lumbar Puncture may be used to identify increased or decreased CSF pressure.  Increased CSF pressure can be caused by increased intracranial pressure as is seen with traumatic brain injury, ruptured aneurysm, and sometimes hydrocephalus. On the other hand, decreased CSF pressure can be caused by spinal cord tumor, shock, fainting, or diabetic coma.  Normal CSF appears clear and colorless. When an infection is present, the CSF may look cloudy and be yellow or pink in color. Infection may be suspected if there is an increased level of white blood cells and/or protein. Increased CSF glucose indicates hyperglycemia whereas decreased CSF glucose may reflect hypoglycemia, bacterial or fungal infection, tuberculosis, or meningitis. If tumor cells are detected, the patient may have cancer in the brain, spinal cord, or CSF.  If there are increased gamma globulin levels, the patient may be suffering from multiple sclerosis, neurosyphilis, or Guillan-Barre syndrome. The analysis of the CSF by the lab and the measuring of CSF pressure recorded from the lumbar puncture help in determining a diagnosis in many serious clinical situations.