As many as 2 out of every 1,000 babies born in the United States have Erb’s palsy. While the condition is considered relatively rare, children born with Erb’s palsy have challenges that can sometimes follow them their entire lives.
Babies with Erb’s palsy experience partial or full paralysis of the arm due to nerve damage suffered during the birthing process. In some cases, a child may need surgery to repair the damage. Other times, a child will have one arm that’s weaker and smaller than the other. As the child gets older, their arm can cause the child to suffer both physically and mentally.
While Erb’s palsy usually develops during a difficult or prolonged labor, it can also be caused by the negligence of a doctor. If that’s the case, the family of the affected child may be able to file a lawsuit to get compensation for medical expenses and noneconomic damages like pain and suffering.
Erb’s palsy is a condition named after Wilhelm Erb — one of the first doctors to describe it — that causes the partial or full paralysis of a baby’s arm. It happens when a bundle of nerves called the brachial plexus is stretched during childbirth.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), the brachial plexus is made up of a system of nerves that control the movement and feeling of the shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers1.
Erb’s palsy is commonly referred to as brachial plexus palsy, but it is actually a subset of the condition. When the upper nerves that control the shoulder and upper arm are damaged, it is known as Erb’s palsy. When the lower nerves that control the forearm and hands are damaged, it is called Klumpke’s palsy.
Although rare, injury can occur to both the upper and lower nerves. This is referred to as total or global brachial plexus palsy.
Injury to the brachial plexus manifests itself in very distinct ways. Here are some of the most recognizable symptoms of brachial plexus palsy in a newborn:
Erb’s palsy is caused when the brachial plexus is damaged. This happens when the shoulder is pulled or stretched too much.
The most common cause of Erb’s palsy is difficult childbirth, also known as dystocia. The reason a long and difficult labor can cause the condition is that it often requires pulling on the shoulders during delivery or puts excessive pressure on the arms during a breech.
Here are some other factors that increase the risk of Erb’s palsy:
There are four types of Erb’s palsy nerve injuries.
Most cases of Erb’s palsy feature a stretching of the nerve called neurapraxia. This is considered less severe because the nerve does not tear. Neurapraxia can even happen from trauma in adults. These types of injuries often heal on their own within three months.
When the nerve is stretched, it becomes damaged and may develop scar tissue. If that scar tissue presses on the healthy nerve, it is called neuroma. Total recovery does not occur from this injury.
If the nerve is stretched too far, it can tear completely. A ruptured nerve cannot repair itself.
An avulsion is when the nerve is torn from the spinal cord. Ruptures and avulsions are the most serious types of nerve injury, according to the AAOS1. Avulsions from the spinal cord are not easily repairable.
Most cases of brachial plexus palsy will heal on its own over time. In the vast majority of cases, the injury will heal within a year — though it could take up to two years for a complete recovery.
Doctors may recommend different treatment options depending on the type and severity of the injury. Children will often need to undergo daily physical therapy to maintain the range of motion in the arm and prevent the joints from stiffening.
If the injury does not heal on its own, a doctor may recommend surgery. Surgical options could be repairing a rupture by splicing in a nerve graft or using a nerve from a donor. Even with surgery, healing can take time. Children may experience weakness in the arm for years after.
Erb’s palsy is often preventable. In fact, many times a doctor or medical professional will act negligently and cause the injury to happen.
Here are some examples of negligence that could lead to Erb’s palsy during delivery:
It is a doctor’s responsibility to ensure a reasonable standard of care to a patient. When they fail to provide that care through negligent actions or inaction, they could and should be held accountable.
If you think someone else’s negligence caused your child to develop Erb’s palsy, contact a qualified attorney to find out whether you have a case. Doing so could earn you compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more.
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