When Shunt Replacement Errors Cause Further Harm to the Brain

Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) is the liquid that flows throughout the brain. Due to certain brain or sinus injuries, a leak of CFS can occur in the brain. If there is too much CFS in the brain, a condition known as hydrocephalus develops. This condition affects hundreds of thousands of people from the very old to the very young. In fact, it is a somewhat common condition in children (also referred to as water on the brain). Sadly, hydrocephalus is the most common reason for brain surgery in children, according to the Hydrocephalus Association.

In order to decrease pressure in the brain and prevent brain damage and even death, shunt surgery is often needed. When a shunt is placed in the brain, it is placed inside the ventricles in order to remove fluid from the brain that should not be there. Although many people’s lives are saved by the shunt surgery, some people need additional surgeries to stay well. This is because shunts sometimes fail due to the following reasons:

  • Mechanical malfunction. The National Hydrocephalus Foundation cites several reasons that a shunt may fail. A shunt blockage is common in the first few months. The blockage is typically caused because of the incorrect placement of the catheter. Occasionally, a catheter may break or disconnect from its valve, or it may not be long enough. Additionally, a valve can become broken or, in a fixed shunt, the incorrect pressure valve may have been used. 
  • Infections. According to U.S. Pharmacist, most shunt infections occur in pediatric patients under the age of five within one to two months of the shunt being placed. Older patients, especially those between 50 and 59 years of age, may experience a shunt infection within 90 days of undergoing a shunt revision surgery. When doctors fail to recognize a shunt infection, a shunt may malfunction, causing cognitive impairment, meningitis, or sepsis—any of which can be life threatening.

Whether a shunt fails or becomes infected, it is critical that a doctor diagnose and treat the problem immediately. If a doctor does not treat the infection or replace the failed or infected shunt, patients may suffer brain damage.

Symptoms of Shunt Malfunction

There are many signs and symptoms of a shunt malfunction or infection. Foremost are headaches, nausea and/or vomiting, and cognitive impairment, although the following can also occur depending on the age of the patient:

  • An enlarged head
  • Visible veining on the scalp
  • Irritability
  • Change in personality
  • Sleepiness or inability to stay awake
  • Seizures
  • Eyes cast downward
  • Vision problems
  • Loss of sensory or motor functions

When these signs or symptoms occur, it is imperative that a doctor check for shunt malfunction or infection. The most common way of diagnosing this is through an ultrasound for infants, and a CT scan or MRI for adults.

The Reality of Shunt Malfunction

Surprisingly, shunt failure is all too common. In fact, only 30 percent of the annual 40,000 hydrocephalus operations in our country are a patient’s first surgery. For pediatric patients, an estimated 50 percent of shunts fail within the first two years and require additional surgeries, according to the Hydrocephalus Association. When an additional surgery is needed, complications due to medical negligence can occur during the shunt replacement surgery, such as:

  • Surgical errors. Even brain surgeons make mistakes from time to time. Unfortunately, any error a neurosurgeon makes during preoperative planning or during surgery can have life-altering effects for patients. Frighteningly, even a very experienced surgeon who performs multiple shunt placement surgeries every week can make a critical mistake that can cause brain damage.
  • Anesthesia errors during surgery. When an anesthesiologist fails to monitor a patient’s vitals or gives a patient too much medication while undergoing shunt replacement surgery, a patient can suffer brain damage. This may be due to the anesthesiologist not recognizing underlying factors of the patient, such as hypo- or hyperglycemia. More commonly, however, mistakes are made in the preoperative medications, either in the type of anesthetic agent or in the dosage.

If there is a shunt failure and negligence is to blame, you or a loved one deserves compensation for your medical bills, ongoing care, lost income, loss of enjoyment of life and so much more. Please call our office today or request a copy of one of our free books to learn more about your rights to a medical malpractice lawsuit in Washington, D.C. and Virginia.