Why Your Doctor Could Be to Blame for Your Infant’s Erb’s Palsy

Gabriel A. Assaad
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Partner Gabriel Assaad represents victims of negligence and medical malpractice nationwide.

After you had your baby, you did what just about every new parent does and quickly checked to make sure she had all of her A Mother Holding an Infants Hand With a White Backgroundfingers and toes. The doctor examined her and said she was in excellent health. In fact, you thought she was the most perfect baby you had ever seen. It wasn’t until a few hours later that you realized she was unable to move one of her arms. After you alerted the doctor, you were told that your baby could have a condition called Erb’s palsy.

What You Need to Know About Erb’s Palsy

About one or two babies in 1,000 suffers from Erb’s palsy. It is a form of brachial plexus palsy and is named after the doctor who described this condition, Dr. Wilhelm Erb. The brachial plexus is a network of nerves that are located near the neck. These nerves provide movement and feeling to the arm, shoulder, hands, and fingers. When this area becomes damaged, loss of motion and weakness can occur.

Most cases of Erb’s palsy are the result of damage to the upper nerves of the brachial plexus. In general, four types of nerve damage can occur:

  • Neuroma. A stretch injury that damages some of the nerve tissue and can leave scar tissue that presses on healthy nerves.
  • Avulsion. This injury occurs when a nerve is torn from the spinal cord.
  • Rupture. This stretch injury causes the nerve to be torn apart and will not heal on its own.
  • Neurapraxia. A stretch injury that “shocks” the nerve, but does not tear it.

Erb’s palsy is often the result of a difficult or traumatic birth. Large babies and those who are in breech positions are prone to experiencing this injury, as are babies who are born after prolonged labors. Additionally, this injury can occur when a birth becomes complicated and the person assisting must deliver the baby quickly—requiring force to help deliver the baby from the mother. If one side of the baby’s neck is stretched, the nerves may be damaged, resulting in Erb’s palsy. Mistakes made by the doctor or assistant during the delivery could also cause the condition.

Diagnosing Erb’s Palsy

Determining if your infant is suffering from Erb’s palsy may be difficult, as not all babies make the same movements. Typically, a pediatrician may become suspicious of the condition based on an examination that reveals weakness in an arm. Other symptoms of the condition include loss of feeling and partial or total paralysis in the arm.

Along with the examination, a doctor can detect the condition with the help of x-rays, ultrasounds, or other imaging studies to look for damage to the bones and joints of the neck and shoulder. The doctor may also perform tests that identify whether the nerve signals are present in the upper arm, called an electromyogram (EMG) or a nerve-conduction study (NCS).

Treatment of Erb’s Palsy

Fortunately, a majority of children born with Erb’s palsy recover on their own. However, the doctor will perform frequent examinations to monitor the child’s progress and may conduct additional tests. Because nerves heal slowly, it may take up to two years until the child has full use of her arm.

The main treatment of Erb’s palsy is daily physical therapy. Parents must help their babies perform arm exercises daily to keep the joints limber and the muscles fit. Typically, the exercises begin when the baby is three weeks old, and target the elbow, wrist, shoulder, and head.

If there are no changes after three to six months, your pediatrician may recommend surgery to repair the nerves. Unfortunately, nerve surgery doesn’t typically restore full nerve function and usually isn’t helpful in many older infants. Many children with Erb’s palsy will continue to have weakness in their arms, shoulders, and hands.

Is the Doctor Responsible for Your Child’s Injury?

You know that mistakes happen, and you’re thankful that your child is otherwise healthy. However, you should not have to pay for a doctor’s mistake, and unless you receive compensation for medical malpractice—you may be responsible for the doctor’s visits, testing, treatment, and surgeries that occurred because of the error. The attorneys at Kennedy Hodges, LLP, have helped many in the DC area receive the compensation they deserved, and may be able to do the same for you. Schedule your free consultation to find out more by calling 855-947-0707.