What is Erb's Palsy?

Erb's Palsy is a nerve injury that effects the movement of a child's shoulder, arm, and hand.  The injury usually happens when too much force is applied to the baby's head, while trying to pull out a baby stuck in the birth canal.  The baby may be too large to fit easily through the birth canal.  When the baby's shoulder gets stuck in the birth canal, it is called "shoulder dystocia." 

Pulling on the baby's head stretches and injures the nerves in the stuck shoulder. The injured nerves are between the shoulder and the neck.  They provide movement to the arm, hand, and fingers.  This collection of nerve fibers is called the "brachial plexus," or Erb's Point" (hence the name Erb's Palsy, or Brachial Plexus Palsy).

Most of the time these nerves are only mildly injured, and the baby may regain movement in a few months.  Unfortunately, about 20% of the time, the injury is so severe, or the nerves are actually avulsed (torn from their points of attachment to the spine), or they may be ruptured, so that paralysis of the arm and shoulder is permanent. 

How can I tell if my baby might have suffered an injury to his brachial plexus?

This injury may result in varying degrees of weakness or paralysis of the shoulder, arm, or hand.  Which part of the arm is involved depends on which nerves in this big network, or plexus, of nerves is injured.  A baby with this injury typically holds his limp arm down by his side with forearm turned inward and wrist bent.  The infant can't lift the arm up and doesn't bring it up even when s/he is startled.   A baby with a very bad injury may also have a droopy eyelid on the side that was injured, in addition to an injury to his arm and hand.

What tests can be done to diagnose this injury?

Your baby's physician may order an x-ray of the neck, an MRI, and maybe even nerve conduction tests (abbreviated as NCV/EMG's).  A pediatric neurologist may be asked to evaluate the degree of injury.  Therapists might be called in to design slings or splints to perform and teach the parents to do exercises to keep the arm limber, and to be part of a rehabilitation process.  In some cases, surgeries have been helpful to restore some function.

Is Erb's Palsy avoidable?

Most Erb's Palsies can be prevented.

So how can this injury be prevented?

 1. It can be avoided by having good health care during pregnancy such as:

  1. Blood sugars of mothers with diabetes mellitus or gestational diabetes require vigilant monitoring.  They also require good dietary teaching, and tight control of blood sugars through diet or medication administration throughout the pregnancy.  We know that high blood sugars "overnourish" the baby and make it gain weight faster than normal, and larger babies are more likely to get stuck in the birth canal.

  2. One option may be to consider an elective cesarean delivery rather than vaginal delivery, but this decision should not be made lightly either, since it also involves risks. 

Risk factors that are more likely to result in difficult deliveries and Erb's Palsy:

  • Mothers who have had a prior child with shoulder dystocia, regardless of whether the previous child had a brachial plexus injury

  • Mothers who have had their labor induced or speeded up with drugs like Cervadil, Pitocin, or Cytotec

  • Larger babies, predictably, are born to  mother's with diabetes, or gestational diabetes, particularly if the blood sugars have not been carefully monitored and managed

  • Mothers with smaller or unusual shaped pelvises or pelvic openings

  • Larger babies (especially those weighing over 8 1/2 pounds at birth)

  • Prolonged labors

  • Precipitous deliveries

  • Breech position

  • Fetal malposition in the birth canal

2. Good advance planning by your obstetrician can lead to an earlier delivery in the event your baby is thought to be too big for an easy, safe delivery.  A large baby can be delivered a few days or weeks early, before s/he becomes too large for delivery vaginally. (A large baby is called "macrosomic").  This is a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth several pounds of cure.

3. Parents should be informed and involved in anticipatory decision-making, not last minute crises during delivery.

  • Parents deserve to be informed of the risks that could lead to a difficult delivery with shoulder dystocia.  Together with their obstetrician or midwife, they should explore the options, such as an earlier induction or a planned delivery by cesarean section, in the event that risk factors are present. 

4. In the event that a baby's shoulder becomes wedged behind the mother's pubic bone (shoulder dystocia), there are several techniques and maneuvers to dislodge the stuck shoulder safely.  A team of nurses and doctors with current knowledge and skill in the techniques for these deliveries are less likely to deliver an injured baby.

Below is an illustration of maneuvers that nurses and physicians should employ to dislodge the baby when it has gotten stuck. Research demonstrates that rehearsals or drills by the labor team reduce the risk of injuries to the fetus when a true emergency occurs.

  • Your birthing facility has a duty to be sure that their obstetric teams have continuing education and skill training, so that they have current knowledge and skills to deal with these challenges when they occur.

Bottom Line: Erb's palsy is almost always a preventable birth defect.

I invite you to contact me to find out more if you think that you or yours were injured as a result of negligence:

Attorney Mark R. Bower

Law Offices of Mark R. Bower

11 Park Place, Suite 1100

New York, NY 10007

Office Phone: 212-240-0700

E-mail: Mark@BowerLaw.com


     

This site was last updated 02/25/10        Hit Counter