According to collected statistics, one to two of every 1,000 babies born will suffer from some degree of Erb’s palsy. This is an injury that results from damage to nerves that run along the neck and that most often occurs during childbirth. Depending on the severity of the damage, the baby may live with temporary or permanent disability in an arm, including loss of sensation, poor muscle control, and even paralysis.
The damage that causes Erb’s palsy in babies is often preventable. A doctor or midwife may make a mistake somewhere along the way that results in damage to the nerves that provide sensation and movement in the arms. If your baby was born with this kind of damage, it may be possible to prove that medical malpractice played a role and to win compensation for your child’s lifelong disability.
Brachial Plexus Nerves
Erb’s palsy is an injury that results from damage to a group of nerves called the brachial plexus. These are five nerves bundled together that run from the spinal cord, along the side of the neck, and down to the arm. These nerves provide sensation in all parts of the arm, from the shoulder to the fingers, as well as muscle control and movement. There are two brachial plexus bundles, one on each side of the neck controlling each arm.
What is Erb’s Palsy?
When one or more nerves in the brachial plexus, on either side, are damaged, the resulting loss of sensation, lack of muscle control, muscle weakness, or paralysis in any part of the arm is called Erb’s palsy. The degree of the palsy, from mild weakness to complete paralysis, depends on how severely the nerves were damaged. Where the palsy occurs, in the shoulder, upper arm, lower arm, wrist, hand, or in the entire arm, depends on which nerves are damaged. There are three main types of damage that can cause Erb’s palsy:
- Stretching. When the nerves are stretched, the damage is typically mild and most babies will recover over a few months with no lasting palsy.
- Rupture. A rupture is a tear in part of a nerve or nerves, and this injury can lead to more severe symptoms and even some degree of permanent Erb’s palsy.
- Avulsion. An avulsion is the most severe type of damage that almost always leads to permanent and severe Erb’s palsy.
Erb’s palsy causes varying degrees of symptoms, which can be temporary or permanent. The symptoms may include sensation loss in the arm, muscle weakness, poor muscle control, and paralysis. Treatments for mild palsy typically include massage and physical therapy until the nerves heal and function is restored. For more serious injuries, Erb’s palsy is treated with surgery, physical therapy, assistive devices, pain medications, and ongoing treatment.
How Nerve Damage Occurs in Childbirth
The nerve damage that leads to Erb’s palsy can occur at any age, but it is most common in newborns because of injuries caused during childbirth. Any forceful stretching of the nerves, which occurs when the head and shoulder are pulled or pushed apart, can lead to this injury and resulting Erb’s palsy. Shoulder dystocia, for instance, is a common cause. This occurs when the baby’s shoulder gets stuck in the birth canal and force must be used to pull it free.
There are several ways in which the injury may occur as a result of a mistake, or in a way that is preventable. When a doctor fails to determine that there is a risk for complications during childbirth, for instance, can result in a failure to order a cesarean section which would likely prevent the nerve damage. Complications that may be mishandled include a high birth weight or a breech position. A doctor or midwife may use excessive and unnecessary force when delivering a baby, sometimes with instruments like forceps, and this can also lead to Erb’s Palsy.
The Consequences of Living with Erb’s Palsy
The consequences of Erb’s palsy are minimal for many babies. In mild cases the damage heals and the baby will grow up to have normal function in the arm. In too many cases, though, the damage is more significant and the consequence is some degree of permanent disability, even paralysis. This can lead to surgeries and other treatments, medical bills, and a need for home health care or a parent missing work and losing income to stay home with the baby.
For the baby as it grows older, living with Erb’s palsy can mean emotional suffering, chronic pain, and an inability to participate in normal activities or limited ability to work. It can also mean an ongoing need for treatment and physical therapy or assistive devices and in-home care, with the accompanying medical bills.
Erb’s Palsy and Medical Malpractice
In many cases of Erb’s palsy, the damage that causes it could have been prevented. Even so, there are several steps in proving that Erb’s palsy was the result of negligence and in proving medical malpractice in a lawsuit. The legal team must prove that there was a duty to provide care to the mother and child, which is often simple to establish.
They must then also prove that the medical team or doctor breached that duty to care. This is often the most complicated part of a case and involves using expert witnesses who can show that another doctor would have done something different to prevent the Erb’s palsy. Finally, it must be proven that the breach in care caused harm to the baby and that this harm caused significant damages.
Examples of Erb’s Palsy Lawsuits
When negligence can be proven in the case of Erb’s palsy, parents are able to win compensation that will help their child get the best care. Those settlements and damages can be very high, such as was the case in 2017 when parents were awarded $4.5 million by a jury. Their baby had been born with Erb’s palsy as a result of negligence on the part of the delivering doctor.
In another case in New York, a girl was born with Erb’s palsy and her mother won a settlement for her future expenses. The girl was born with significant damage that resulted in permanent disability and almost no function in her right arm. The settlement was awarded and included a bank account set up for the girl to start receiving payments as she grows older.
Erb’s palsy can be a lifelong and devastating condition for those children born with significant nerve damage. For parents, the pressure of figuring out how to pay for treatments and care can also be significant. With a malpractice case parents have a chance of seeking justice for their child and for getting compensation that will help provide that child with ongoing care and the best support and treatment.