Mrs W was a 44-year-old Afrikaans teacher who was usually fit and well. She had two children and they enjoyed walking to the same school together in the mornings.
On one of these walks Mrs W was troubled by aching in her right buttock and some tingling in her right calf. She mentioned this to her GP, who noted that there had been no acute injury and that she was still managing to walk to school. He advised her to take paracetamol and ibuprofen and suggested some exercises.
A week later the pain was worse so Mrs W made an appointment to see Dr G, another GP. Dr G documented that she had acute backache with right-sided sciatica and paraesthesia in the right lateral leg. She noted that there were no bladder or bowel symptoms and documented that tone, power and reflexes were normal in both legs. Dr G’s notes stated that she had discussed warning signs that would need review. She prescribed diclofenac and referred Mrs W to physiotherapy.
Three weeks later Mrs W saw Dr G again, complaining that the pain was so bad that she couldn’t work. Dr G noted back pain with right-sided sciatica and paraesthesia but, again, found the power in her legs to be normal. Mrs W was getting indigestion with the diclofenac so Dr G prescribed codeine instead. She gave Mrs W a sick note and Mrs W said she would see a private physiotherapist in the meantime.
She managed to see a private physiotherapist a week later. The physiotherapist’s notes commented on her right buttock and leg pain and numbness in the right foot without weakness. There were clear records of the absence of bladder or bowel symptoms.
Mrs W was struggling to sleep with pain so made another appointment with Dr G. She documented that Mrs W was tearful but keeping active, doing jobs round the house. Dr G prescribed some senokot to help with “codeine related constipation” and a trial of amitriptyline.
Two days later Mrs W fell at home and rang the out-of-hours GP service. She told the triage nurse that her right leg felt numb and weak, and that she felt like she needed to pass urine but couldn’t. An ambulance was called and records in the Emergency Department noted a five-week history of right-sided leg pain and paraesthesia with a one-day history of retention of urine and inability to pass stool.
Examination revealed weakness and diminished sensation in Mrs W’s right leg but normal findings on the left. There was reduced anal tone and sensation over the saddle area. She was catheterised and one litre of urine was drained. Shortly after, records stated that she had complained of numbness and weakness in her left leg and that power had been found to be reduced in her left leg. Ten minutes later Mrs W was found to have no power in both legs.
Mrs W was commenced on a three-day course of intravenous steroids, followed by a further two-day course. An MRI confirmed an extensive high signal throughout the thoracic cord, suggestive of either inflammation or infarction; a plasma exchange was begun.
There was no change to Mrs W’s condition and doctors noted her developing upper limb symptoms, a 6th nerve palsy and papilloedema. She was therefore treated on the basis that she had neurosarcoidosis, and Mrs W was recommenced on high dose steroids and started on intravenous cyclophosphamide.
Her condition stabilised and the 6th nerve palsy and papilloedema resolved. However, she was left with clumsy hands and paralysis of both lower limbs. Methotrexate was tried, but there was no substantial change to her clinical condition. She did report some improvement in the function of her hands.
Mrs W was left with flaccid paralysis in her lower limbs, rendering her unable to move either leg or stand. Her upper limbs were weak. She had a suprapubic catheter and was incontinent of her bowels. Mrs W was devastated and made a claim against Dr G.
Mrs W alleged that she had told the GP of her difficulties in passing urine and opening her bowels several times prior to her admission. She claimed that her GP had failed to examine her adequately and had not referred her urgently. She believed that her disabilities would have been less severe if she had been diagnosed and treated earlier.
MPS’s GP expert reviewed the notes from Dr G, the physiotherapist and the hospital. He felt that there were some vulnerabilities in Dr G’s notes from the second and third consultations because they were rather brief, but considered her examination and management to be reasonable. He noted that Dr G prescribed senokot for constipation but thought it understandable for a patient taking codeine to be constipated.
He felt that constipation in itself was not sufficiently discriminatory to be a red flag necessitating urgent neurosurgical referral. He commented that the physiotherapy notes were clear and that the patient had been specifically asked about bladder or bowel symptoms and that there were none.
The hospital notes stated that urinary symptoms only occurred on the day of admission. The records from all the clinicians involved point to Mrs W’s bladder and significant bowel symptoms starting on the day she was admitted, and not before as Mrs W claimed.
MPS also sought the opinion of a professor in neurology. He concurred with the rare diagnosis of neurosarcoidosis. He felt that Mrs W’s acute deterioration was a consequence of cord ischaemia and infarction resulting from inflammatory or granulomatous involvement of the arterial supply to the cord. This would explain the sub-acute illness with a rapid evolutionary phase to the point of severe neurological disability.
It was his opinion that there is no proven effective treatment for neurosarcoidosis and that earlier treatment would not have altered the outcome. He noted that it is well recognised that cranial neuropathies, such as Mrs W’s 6th nerve palsy, can resolve spontaneously without treatment, and the improvement in Mrs W’s upper limbs was consistent with the variable natural history of neurosarcoidosis. The cord dysfunction that she had developed remained unchanged despite treatment.
MPS decided to defend the case to trial denying liability, supported by expert evidence. Mrs W discontinued proceedings two weeks before the trial, and MPS is now seeking recovery of all costs.
- Good note-keeping is important in patient care but also when defending a claim. Clinical records should include relevant clinical findings, negative findings and relevant negatives when excluding red flags, such as the absence of bladder or bowel symptoms.
- MPS carefully reviewed the records of the GP, the physiotherapists and the hospital doctors to see how the notes supported each other to aid the defence.
- It is useful to be reminded of the referral guidelines from primary care for lower back pain.1 Repeated examination is needed to check that there is no progression of neurological deficit.
- This case highlights the value of revisiting your diagnosis and not making assumptions when a patient re-presents.