Erb’s palsy is one of several conditions caused by birth injuries to an infant’s brachial plexus. This type of injury is often the result of trauma to the shoulder or upper arm, especially during a long or difficult delivery. Erb’s palsy affects the upper half of the brachial plexus and usually causes weakness or paralysis of the arm on the affected side.
The prognosis for Erb’s palsy depends on where the injury took place and how severe it is. In most cases, Erb’s palsy clears up on its own with little or no treatment. In other cases, however, if the nerves in the upper brachial plexus are severely damaged, the affected arm may suffer from permanent weakness or permanent paralysis.
Is Erb’s Palsy Permanent?
While it is a painful condition, Erb’s palsy is not permanent. However, for children with severe damage to the brachial plexus nerves, recovery from Erb’s palsy can take up to several months. In the majority of cases, birth injuries to the brachial nerves can be treated with physical therapy and, if necessary, with surgery.
These treatments often restore the affected arm’s function completely and help children recover from the temporary effects of Erb’s palsy without causing permanent disability..
How is Erb’s Palsy Treated?
Doctors have various treatment options to help a child recover from Erb’s palsy or other brachial plexus injuries. The severity of the nerve damage is the principal factor that determines which form of treatment is needed. In cases where the child’s nerves are stretched, doctors will recommend physical therapy to help the injury to heal and restore function to the affected arm. Physical therapists have various options to choose from, including strength exercises, sensory stimulation, and range of motion exercises. Physical therapy is more effective when family members help a child to do exercises at home to complement the treatments given by a therapist.
Other treatments for most cases of Erb’s palsy where nerve damage is mild to moderate include:
- Occupational therapy
Keep in mind that the time for a recovery from a brachial plexus injury can range from several weeks to up to 8 months or more, depending on the specific type of nerve injury.
Surgery is sometimes necessary to treat Erb’s palsy. It is commonly used in cases of severe nerve damage, especially those that involve split or torn nerves. Doctors may also recommend surgery in cases where a child’s therapy treatments aren’t progressing as well as expected. Typically, surgery treatments for Erb’s palsy include:
- Nerve grafts
- Nerve decompression
Are There Any Long-Term Effects for Children With Erb’s Palsy?
In most cases, there are no residual effects of Erb’s palsy after a child has received treatment and the nerves in the brachial plexus have healed. In some children who have suffered from the condition may grow up with the affected arm being shorter than the unaffected one. Other long-term effects may include lingering weakness in one arm and/or difficulties with circular movements of the shoulder or elbow joints.
What Happens if Erb’s Palsy is Not Treated?
Per the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Erb’s palsy heals spontaneously in 90-100% of cases where the brachial plexus nerves are merely stretched or stressed. Even so, it is advisable that children be treated as soon as possible after a birth injury. If a child is diagnosed with Erb’s palsy but doesn’t receive any type of treatment, he or she may suffer life-long consequences, including permanent weakness in the affected arm. In cases where the nerves have been split or torn, total paralysis of the arm and shoulder on the injured side will result unless surgery is performed quickly.