California – Neurology – Diagnostic Errors When Evaluating Neck Pain, Back Pain, And Headaches After A Motor Vehicle Accident

On 2/28/2012, a 27-year-old male presented to a neurologist with chief complaints of neck, lower back, and headache following a motor vehicle accident that occurred approximately 3 weeks earlier.  The patient denied any loss of consciousness in the accident and gave no history of suffering a head trauma. The patient’s neurological examination was normal except for mild reflex asymmetry in the upper and lower extremities and a slow gait.  The neurologist noted moderate tenderness on palpation of the cervical paraspinal musculature with full range of motion, but no neck stiffness. The neurologist listed his diagnoses of the patient as: post-concussive headache/migraine syndrome; status post MVA and head injury; cervical spasm; lumbar spasm; and the neurologist wanted to rule out cervical and lumbar radiculopathy.

On this initial visit, the neurologist performed an in-office EEG for the patient’s headaches and “head injury,” but the patient never reported suffering a head injury in the accident, or any loss of consciousness or any seizure activity that would justify this study at this time.  The EEG was normal. The neurologist also performed an in-office EMG and NCV of both bilateral upper and lower extremities, testing 68 muscles, which the neurologist stated took approximately 1 hour. During the study, the neurologist obtained no response of bilateral tibial H-Reflexes.  The neurologist’s impression of the NCV was that the patient suffered from “right sided mild carpal tunnel syndrome” in the “bilateral upper extremities.” The test results, however, did not support the neurologist’s impression as the patient did not have the electrophysiological features for carpal tunnel syndrome.  The neurologist’s further impression was that the patient “possible S1 radiculopathy,” however, the test results did not establish a diagnosis of S1 radiculopathy.

The neurologist also ordered an MRI of the patient’s brain, cervical spine, and lumbar spine.  The neurologist also advised the patient to obtain physical therapy/occupational therapy or chiropractic treatment, but the neurologist failed to write a prescription for physical or occupational therapy and failed to refer the patient to a facility where he could obtain such treatments.

On this visit, the neurologist billed $550 for the office visit, $4,320 for the NCV, $380 for he H-Reflex amp study, $640 for the needle EMG, and $1,125 for the EEG, for a total single visit charge of $7,015.

On 3/6/2012, the patient returned for a follow-up visit complaining of increased neck, shoulder, and low back pain.  The neurologist’s list of diagnoses remained the same as the previous visit and appeared to be cut and pasted into the new chart note.  During this visit, the neurologist performed “Cervical and Lumbar trigger points” injections, but there was no report documenting this procedure in the certified chart, and the neurologist’s billing summary did not reflect a charge for this procedure on this date.

On 4/19/2012, the patient underwent an MRI of his brain and lumbar spine at an outside facility, which were interpreted as normal.  The cervical MRI, however, revealed a 3 to 4 mm left paramedian disc protrusion at C7-T1, degenerative changes at C2 to C6, and a 13 mm x 6 mm lesion in the left lobe of the thyroid gland consistent with thyroid adenoma or colloid cyst.

On 4/30/2012, the patient returned for a follow-up visit complaining of neck and shoulder pain.  The neurologist noted moderate tenderness on palpation of the cervical paraspinal musculature at C6 to C7, but the patient’s range of movement was within normal limits.  The neurologist’s diagnoses were post-concussive headache syndrome, status post MVA, and cervical and lumbar spasm.

The neurologist performed “Cervical Trigger point” injections at 6 different points, but there was no report documenting this procedure in the certified chart.  The neurologist also had the patient undergo an in-office carotid artery duplex scan even though the patient had no carotid bruits on examination, had no clinical evidence or history of vascular pathology involving the anterior circulation, nor any evidence or history of transient ischemic attack or other similar medical conditions, which would justify the scan.  The scan was completely normals. The neurologist charted that he asked the patient to go to “intense physical therapy” and told the patient that his symptoms were mostly due to spasm due to “cervical acute disc herniation.” The patient, however, did not have a herniated cervical disc.

On this visit, the neurologist billed $1,350 for the in-office carotid artery duplex scan, $950 for the trigger point injections with ultrasound guidance (for which there was no procedure report), $415 for interpreting the outside MRI of the spinal canal, and $415 for interpreting the MRI of the brain, which had been reported by the outside facility to be normal.

On 5/2/2012, the patient returned for another follow-up visit complaining of pain with spasm in his neck and shoulder area.  The neurologist charted that the patient stated the injections from 2 days earlier and the new medication helped relieve his pain, but it returned last night.  The neurologist noted neck pain and spasm in the midscapular area with “back pain/spasm but less.” The neurologist, however, did not explain how the patient’s back pain was less since on the prior visit, 2 days earlier, the patient had no back complaints.  The neurologist’s list of diagnoses were identical to those listed on the patient’s initial visit on 2/28/2012, including the status post “head injury” and ruling out “cervical and lumbar Radiculopathy,” which appeared to be copied and pasted from the February note.

On 5/18/2012, the patient returned for another follow-up visit complaining of severe neck pain.  The neurologist noted moderate tenderness in the cervical paraspinal muscles at C4 to C7, and moderate tenderness in the paraspinal muscles at L2 to S1, but the patient had no back complaints on this visit.  The neurologist’s list of “current” diagnoses were identical to those listed on the patient’s initial visit on 2/28/2012, including the status post “head injury,” “lumbar spasm,” and ruling out of “lumbar Radiculopathy,” which appeared to be cut and pasted from the initial visit in February.  In his unsigned cervical injection procedure report, the neurologist listed the patient’s diagnoses as cervical radiculopathy, cervical spinal stenosis, intractable migraine, post concussion headache, and cervical muscle spasm, but here was no evidence in the certified chart that the patient suffered from all these conditions.

On 5/30/2012, the patient returned for a further follow-up visit complaining of neck pain radiating into his left shoulder.  The neurologist’s review of systems was identical to that of the previous visit, including the misspelling, and appeared to have been copied and pasted from the prior note.  The neurologist noted back pain and spasms even though the patient had no back complaints on this visit and no tenderness was found upon examination.

The neurologist performed another NCV/EMG of the patient’s bilateral upper extremities, but there had been no significant change in the patient’s condition to justify repeating this test.  The neurologist’s impression was that the patient had bilateral cervical radiculopathy at C5-C7, inter alia, but the test results did not support the neurologist’s impression for radiculopathy.

For all the previous appointments, the neurologist’s plan was to order physical therapy for the patient, but there as no prescription or order found in the certified chart indicating that the neurologist ordered or prescribed physical therapy on this visit.

On 6/13/2012, the patient returned for another follow-up visit complaining of increased neck pain radiating into his left shoulder.  The neurologist’s review of systems was identical to the previous visit, including the misspelling, and noted back pain and spasms even though the patient had no back complaints on this visit.  In his unsigned procedure note, the neurologist performed a cervical thoracic facet steroid injection, under ultrasound guidance, but the corresponding ultrasound images listed a date of 6/14/2012.  The consent for the procedure was not signed by the patient, and there was no explanation in the certified chart indicating why someone else signed the consent for the patient, who was alert and talking with the neurologist during the visit.  On this visit, the neurologist wrote a prescription for the patient to receive physical or occupational therapy.

On 6/27/2012, the patient returned for another follow-up visit with improved neck pain, but now complained of back pain and spasm.  The neurologist’s review of systems was identical to the previous visit, including the misspelling, and it appeared to have been copied and pasted from the prior note.  The neurologist noted moderate tenderness in the paraspinal musculature at L2-S1, but the patient’s range of motion was normal. The neurologist also recorded ankle jerks upon examination.  The neurologist performed another NCV/EMG of the patient’s bilateral extremities, which the neurologist interpreted as showing bilateral radiculopathy at L5 and S1, but the test results did not support a diagnosis of radiculopathy.  The neurologist again obtained no responses of the bilateral tibial II-Reflexes, demonstrating improper placement of the electrodes or that these areas were not tested.

Throughout these appointments, the neurologist failed to order additional tests or studies concerning the thyroid lesion identified on the cervical MRI, and failed to refer the patient to an endocrinologist or other appropriate specialist for further evaluation and treatment of the thyroid lesion.

The patient ordered a repeat MRI of the patient’s lumbar spine and continued physical therapy, but there was no documentation in the certified chart that the patient was actually receiving physical therapy at this time.  This appeared to be the last time the patient saw the neurologist, but there was a LabCorp lab request form in the certified chart indicating that labs were collected on 6/13/2014 at 3:48 p.m., but there was no corresponding chart notes reflecting a patient visit on this date

The Medical Board of California judged that the neurologist’s conduct departed from the standard of care because he failed to accurately analyze and interpret the repeat in-office EMG/NCV studies performed, appropriately evaluate the large lesion identified on the cervical MRI and/or refer the patient to an endocrinologist or other appropriate professional for its evaluation and treatment, fully evaluate and initially treat the patient’s neck and back pain and headaches with conservative care and non-interventional treatment, initially order physical therapy for the patient while repeatedly performing invasive treatments, and overall fully, properly, and appropriately evaluate and treat the patient’s complaints.

For this case and others, the Medical Board of California revoked the neurologist’s license.

State: California


Date: June 2017


Specialty: Neurology


Symptom: Head/Neck Pain, Headache, Back Pain, Joint Pain


Diagnosis: Spinal Injury Or Disorder


Medical Error: Unnecessary or excessive diagnostic tests, Failure to examine or evaluate patient properly, Failure to order appropriate diagnostic test, False positive, Lack of proper documentation


Significant Outcome: N/A


Case Rating: 2


Link to Original Case File: Download PDF



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