If your child suffered a brachial plexus injury during, or shortly after birth, you may be wondering about his or her future mobility or limitations. One question many parents ask is “can my child play sports after a brachial plexus injury?” Many parents have high hopes that their children will inherit a love of a certain sport, or will be athletic and active in general. Brachial plexus or other birth injuries may seem to dampen such hopes.
To help answer the question of whether a brachial plexus injury will impact a child’s athleticism or abilities, let’s take a closer look at this type of birth injury, how an injury could impact your child, and what options you may have to support your child’s athletic goals.
What is a Brachial Plexus Injury?
A brachial plexus injury is an injury that damages the bundle of nerves in the neck. These nerves support and power the shoulders, arms, and fingers. Brachial plexus injuries are most commonly associated with an infant getting stuck during delivery. If the doctor has to pull the baby, use more force, or use assistive tools like forceps, the nerves and tendons may be stretched.
Estimates suggest that brachial plexus injuries only occur in one or two out of every 1,000 live births. The most common first signs of an injury is a lack of movement on one side of the body. Depending on the severity, the difference in movement between sides may be mild or dramatic.
While sometimes nerve injuries are caused by complications or other factors outside a doctor’s control, some of these injuries are caused by negligence. Doctors must be very careful in how they manage complicated or difficult births, and must make decisions that will prevent injuries from occurring. When they fail to take proper steps, fail to diagnose complications, or fail to order alternatives like a Cesarean section in a timely manner, they may be negligently contributing to your child’s injury.
How Serious are Brachial Plexus Injuries?
As mentioned above, the severity of the injury will have an impact on how it affects your child. Around 90 percent of these injuries only involve stretching, and do not tear the nerves. That is great news because treatment often does not require surgery. More severe injuries, however, may require surgery to repair torn nerves.
The most commonly reported long-term impact of brachial plexus injuries include:
- Shoulder weakness
- Difficulty rotating the shoulder
- Elbow flexion problems
- Loss of sensation
Even with these long-term impacts, many doctors encourage families to be active and support athletic goals. Dr. Joseph Styron, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, says he has seen numerous children with brachial plexus injuries go on to wrestle, swim, play football, and become varsity or college athletes.
What are Treatment Options for Brachial Plexus Injuries?
Brachial plexus injuries are often identified shortly after birth. Treatment generally begins in the days or weeks following diagnosis. Depending on the severity of the injury and any other comorbid conditions or impacts, treatment may include:
- Physical Therapy: Many brachial plexus injuries can be resolved with physical therapy. Physical therapy includes specialized exercises designed to stretch joints and keep them loose. These exercises specifically target the affected areas of the body and take into consideration the delicate nature of joints and nerves.
- Nerve Transfer: More serious nerve injuries may require a surgical procedure called nerve transfer. During this procedure, surgeons use nearby functioning nerves and “plug” them in to injured or nonfunctioning nerves. This helps restore function.
- Tendon Transfer: Similar to nerve transfer, a tendon transfer is a procedure where surgeons release one end of a healthy tendon from the connecting soft tissue or bone, and reconnect it to another tendon, which may be damaged. This procedure can help restore function and mobility.
One of the most important elements of treating a brachial plexus injury is initiating treatment as early as possible. As a parent, it can be extremely helpful to work with a team of healthcare providers, including physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons, and if applicable, plastic surgeons.
What Parents Can Do to Support Children with Brachial Plexus Injuries
As you work through treatment options, it is important that you support your child’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. There are several things you can do as a parent to help support and encourage your child to work with their injury, rather than against it. Consider the following:
- Avoid treating your child differently: Of course, you and your child will acknowledge the injury and any side effects, but it is important to avoid treating your child differently. Encourage him or her to be active, play with peers, and be competitive. Help your child understand their injury and not view it as a disability.
- Know the limits: Part of understanding an injury and its impact is understanding what limits the injury has caused. Learning about any limitations is an important part in helping your child develop strategies to compensate or adapt.
- Learn ways to adapt: Help your child develop ways to adapt when being active. If there are deficits in movement or ability, help him or her learn how to use other parts of their body to compensate and offset. Adapting movements can help your child be active and athletic, and can open doors for school or other sport activities.
- Be aware: As a parent, it is a good idea to be aware of how your child’s injury may impact them visibly. In some cases, the affected arm is visibly smaller than the other. Also, some children do not swing the affected arm when walking. These impacts generally do not affect your child’s abilities, but can be noticeable to others.
Perhaps the best thing you can do to support your child is to be his or her biggest advocate. Help your child look past any limitations and see the endless possibilities for the future. If you are concerned about your child’s legal rights, or are concerned that negligence caused the injury, you may also find it helpful to work with a birth injury attorney to learn more about your situation.
At Brown & Brothers, we work with parents and families who have experienced all sorts of birth injury or medical malpractice. Contact us to learn more about how we can work with you to protect your child’s legal rights and future pursuits. Fill out our online form to get started.