Spinal abscess injury

12 November 2021

A spinal abscess occurs when damaged tissue in the spine becomes infected. The body’s defences (white blood cells) produce pus and an untreated abscess can threaten the spinal cord by pressing on it and cutting off the blood supply to the nerves.

A delay in receiving spinal abscess treatment may result in permanent nerve damage affecting the arms and legs, bowel and bladder and sexual function.

Any late or inaccurate spinal abscess diagnosis, or sub-standard treatment, can result in severe, distressing and life-changing consequences – not only for the person involved but for their loved ones too. Read on to find out more about spinal abscesses, their causes, symptoms, treatment and expected recovery times.

What is a spinal abscess?

A spinal abscess (also called a spinal cord abscess or SCA) can cause permanent damage to your spinal cord. An abscess is a swollen area in the body’s tissues resulting from a build-up of pus when injured tissue becomes infected. This swelling puts sustained pressure on the nerve fibres and blood vessels in the spinal cord, which can damage the nerves controlling muscle power, sensation and function and therefore lead to serious long-term injury.

Damage is often caused by the pressure that the abscess puts on the blood vessels supplying the nerves as much as the pressure it places on the spinal cord and the nerves themselves.

Concentrations of infection in the spine are called spinal epidural abscesses (SEAs) because they result in the direct spread of infection into the epidural space (the space between the dura mater (a membrane) and the vertebral wall, containing fat and small blood vessels). They can often start with some kind of injury to the back or as result of a catheter – for epidural anaesthesia, for example – and then grow as a result of blood-borne bacteria.

How common is a spinal abscess?

Thankfully, a spinal abscess is a relatively rare occurrence.

What are the most common spinal abscess causes?

A spinal cord abscess is often caused by an introduction of bacteria into the body. As these bacteria begin to affect the spinal cord, white blood cells attempt to fight the infection. This causes a build-up of pus which in turn leads to the abscess.

Other potential spinal abscess causes include:

  • Septicaemia, or blood poisoning
  • Tuberculosis, a type of bacterial infection
  • Boils on your skin
  • Complications arising from back surgery or a lumbar puncture procedure
  • Back injuries or trauma
  • The injection of illicit drugs

What are the typical spinal abscess symptoms?

The usual spinal abscess symptoms are fever, back pain, tenderness and then nerve root pain leading to leg weakness and other neurological symptoms. Other warning signs include sharp pain that can radiate to your arms or legs, loss of sensation below the area of the abscess and loss of control of your bladder and bowels.

Spinal abscess diagnosis should be reached by regular spinal and neurological examinations and MRI scanning is a key tool. If the infection is not diagnosed and treated quickly then permanent damage to the nerves can occur and blood poisoning (septicaemia) may result.

What complications can arise from a spinal cord abscess?

A spinal abscess can lead to a number of potentially serious complications, including:

  • Recurrent infection
  • Weakness and numbness
  • Loss of bowel and bladder control
  • Loss of sexual function
  • Dysuria (painful urination)

What are the options for spinal abscess treatment?

Spinal abscess treatment typically involves the administration of high-dose intravenous antibiotics and/or surgery to drain and decompress the spine.

The exact course of spinal abscess treatment is likely to vary from one patient to the next, as each case is different. However, all patients have a right to expect the highest possible standards of care from the medical professionals who are looking after them.

Our experienced spinal injury solicitors can advise you on whether you may have a claim where there are concerns about a delay in diagnosis or incorrect spinal abscess treatment.

How long is the spinal abscess recovery period?

The time it takes to recover from a spinal abscess will depend on the severity of the problem and how quickly it is treated. There could be some long-lasting effects that a person may never make a full recovery from.

If an accurate diagnosis is not made, or if treatment is delayed for some reason, then the results can be severe and life-changing. If untreated, other infections can take hold and these too can have a devastating impact on your wellbeing and quality of life.

That’s why it’s absolutely vital to receive early and effective treatment. If you feel that is not the case, and that you or a loved one suffered a spinal abscess due to medical negligence, you could have grounds to make a claim for compensation.

How can Shoosmiths help if you suffer a spinal abscess?

It’s extremely difficult to deal with the effects of a spinal abscess, especially when there are long-lasting impacts that affect the lives of you and those closest to you. And that distress can be made even worse if the spinal abscess was the result of a misdiagnosis or incorrect or delayed treatment on the part of the medical professionals who have a duty of care to protect you. That’s where Shoosmiths can help.

Our spinal cord injury solicitors can help you claim the compensation you deserve. It can’t undo what has happened, but it may assist you on the road to spinal abscess recovery by helping to cover the costs of your treatment and any adaptations you’ve made to your home as well as any income you’ve lost by not being able to work.

And our help goes far beyond the financial. We have established a number of close partnerships with the likes of the Spinal Injury Association, which allow us to connect you with a variety of support groups and services.

For more information or to talk to a member of our friendly team, contact us by sending a message or by calling free of charge on 0370 086 8686.



This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024

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