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Understanding Erb's palsy

As an expectant mother, your growing baby's safety, welfare and health likely are your top concerns. You consequently do everything possible to keep yourself safe and healthy so (s)he will be, too. Unfortunately, however, there are some things over which you have no control. Birth injuries are one of these, and Erb's palsy, although a fairly rare birth injury, can have serious and long-lasting effects on your baby if and when it occurs.

Erb's palsy is a condition that injures the nerves in your baby's brachial plexus during his or her birth. It happens in 0.5 to 2.6 percent of live births. Some babies "outgrow" Erb's palsy, but others do not, and these children face a 20-25 percent risk of serious arm and shoulder problems without surgical intervention.

Your baby's brachial plexus nerves radiate from his or her spine to his or her respective armpits and from there to his or her arms. These nerves can be stretched and injured during the birthing process, resulting in Erb's palsy, a condition that weakens your baby's shoulders and arms, causes loss of feeling, and possibly even paralysis.

Risk factors

As stated, Erb's palsy happens only rarely, but your baby's risk for suffering this possibly debilitating birth injury increases under the following conditions:

  • If (s)he is a particularly large baby
  • If you are a particularly small mother
  • If (s)he delivers with the aid of mid-level or low forceps
  • If (s)he delivers with the aid of vacuum extraction
  • If (s)he delivers during your second stage of labor
  • If one of your older children suffers from Erb's palsy

Treatment

Health care providers can do little about Erb's palsy during the first year of your baby's life other than physical therapy. Doctors prefer to take a wait-and-see approach since the possibility exists that your baby will "outgrow" this condition without any medical intervention. In addition, surgery is contraindicated in very young babies unless there is no other option. If the condition persists beyond your baby's first birthday, however, then doctors undoubtedly will recommend surgery.

As you might expect, Erb's palsy and the physical therapy and possible surgical costs it entails can result in substantial medical costs, not only during your baby's first year of life, but also thereafter. If you believe that your OB/GYN's negligence or carelessness caused your baby's Erb's palsy, you may wish to think about filing a medical malpractice suit against not only the health care professionals who were present in the delivery room, but also the hospital where your baby's birth occurred.

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