Birth has never been an easy process, but medical procedures have come so far, you’d think we had it down to, well, science by now. While it’s safer than ever, the scary truth is that things can still go wrong, and the child and mother can end up injured. All kinds of complications can arise, some of which may affect the baby for life. Sometimes, the problems are neurological and largely manageable. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a good example of this. Other times, though, damage can be done that will affect the child for life. Erb’s Palsy is a common version of this.
Erb’s Palsy is the result of an injury to the brachial plexus during labor. There have been some cases where Erb’s Palsy occurred later on in life, but those are incredibly rare. The name comes from Erb’s point, where the injury happens. It’s located between the neck and the shoulder.
What Is Erb’s Palsy?
The brachial plexus is a nerve cluster on either side of the head that is vital for operating the arms. It essentially passes on messages from the brain to the shoulder, arm, and even hand. That’s why when it’s damaged early on and doesn’t develop properly, the child can grow up to lack full functionality in the arm related to whichever side of the body where the damage occurred.
Erb’s Palsy only refers to this specific type of injury, though there are other similar ones that can happen too. If the damage is done to anything but the upper nerves of the brachial plexus, it’s going to be a different injury, global brachial plexus palsy.
How Does It Occur?
It’s estimated that roughly one or two babies out of every thousand will suffer from Erb’s Palsy. However, the extent to which the damage occurs will mean varying degrees of severity amongst these children.
There are a few ways the brachial plexus can get hurt during the birthing process and result in Erb’s Palsy. Fortunately, it’s extremely preventable, though that makes it all the more unfortunate when this occurs (more on this in a moment).
Most of the time, the doctor or another medical professional will pull on the baby’s arm to help get them through the birth canal. Often, the doctor has little choice. If the baby is stuck, lack of oxygen will eventually cause a much worse problem if they aren’t pulled to safety. Still, the pulling can tear the brachial plexus and cause Erb’s Palsy.
Sometimes, a tool is used that winds up doing the same thing. A medical vacuum designed for helping to clear the baby or forceps could both put too much pressure on the child during birth.
A contributing factor can also be the weight/size of the mother. If the birth canal doesn’t provide enough room, the baby can get stuck, which is why the pulling becomes necessary in the first place. Obviously, a child that’s born big is also going to run into this problem. Just because the mother isn’t a large woman doesn’t mean she can’t have a fairly big baby.
Two other important risk factors to know about are a baby coming out in the breech position and the mother going through the second stage of labor for longer than an hour.
As we touched on above, sometimes the doctor is to blame for a child’s Erb’s Palsy. If yours has been diagnosed with this condition, you should speak to another physician and get their opinion. Either way, it’s worth speaking to a doctor too.
If your child doesn’t seem to be using one of their arms, it’s worth investigating the possibility of Erb’s Palsy. While the damage is likely, not permanent, you’re still better off knowing.