What are the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Erb’s Palsy?

Erb’s palsy is a condition that is often confused with cerebral palsy because both are associated with nerve damage and paralysis.  Though similar, the causes and symptoms of Erb’s palsy are different than those associated with cerebral palsy.  Read on to learn more Erb’s palsy, the causes, symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.

What are the Types and Causes of Erb’s Palsy?

Erb’s palsy is also known as brachial plexus birth palsy.  This condition is most commonly caused by abnormal or complicated labor and delivery that results in stretching or tearing of the nerves and muscles in the neck.  Such stretching or tearing is often classified as a brachial plexus injury because of the system of nerves in the neck and shoulder by the same name.

The brachial plexus network controls nerves and muscles in the shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, and hands.  These nerves run from the neck down the spine.  Because of the nature of the injuries leading to Erb’s palsy, the condition is often noticeable immediately or shortly after birth.

During abnormal or complicated labor or delivery, the baby’s head and neck may be pulled to one side in order to pass the shoulders through the birth canal.  In more difficult deliveries, such as feet-first, or if the baby’s head become “stuck” in the birth canal, the person delivering the baby may have to pull harder.  This forceful delivery can put pressure on the arms, shoulders, neck, and head, causing injuries to the nerves.

Depending on the damage done to the brachial plexus nerves, Erb’s palsy may be diagnosed as one of four types.  These types include:

  • Neuropraxia – Compression or stretch injury causing temporary disruption of nerve conduction, yet complete nerve stays intact. Treatment for neuropraxia has a good prognosis and full recovery is likely.
  • Axonotmesis – Nerve is damaged but partially remains intact.  There is some       degeneration due to injury, but the nerve also attempts to repair itself.  There is a good chance of a partial recovery, but high likelihood of some lasting issues.
  • Neurotmesis – There is a complete nerve transection and/or injury, and chances of recovery are poor without surgical repair.

Risk Factors for Erb’s Palsy

The causes and risk factors for Erb’s palsy are similar, including abnormal or difficult labor or delivery.  There are some additional risk factors that parents should be aware of, however, which may be relevant before labor begins.  These risk factors include:

  • Excessive maternal weight gain during pregnancy
  • Large infant size
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Prolonged second stage of labor (lasting over one hour)
  • Use of assistive birthing tools, such as forceps or vacuum
  • History of difficult births or Erb’s palsy

Sometimes during labor and delivery, complications are unavoidable.  However, many brachial plexus injuries are the result of improper handling of an abnormal or difficult birth.  When doctors use too much force, delay delivery, fail to recognize complications, or improperly use birthing tools, the chances of a birth injury like brachial plexus injuries increases.  If you are concerned that your child’s Erb’s palsy is the result of doctor negligence or recklessness, contact Birth Injury Guide.

What are the Symptoms of Erb’s Palsy?

The symptoms of Erb’s palsy may vary depending on the type and severity of the injury.  The most common symptoms include:

  • Weakness in one arm
  • Holding one arm against the body with a bent elbow
  • Lack of, or decreased grip strength in affected hand
  • Numbness in the arm or hand
  • Impaired muscular, circulatory, or nervous development
  • Paralysis in affected arm (partial or total)
  • Pain on affected side

Every brachial plexus injury is unique, and your child’s overall health will also impact symptoms and their severity.

Treatment Options for Erb’s Palsy

Much like the symptoms, treating Erb’s palsy will depend on the extent of the injury and your child’s overall health.  As a general rule, treatment options will include:

  • Mild Injuries: Most mild stretch or tear injuries will heal on their own without much, if any, medical intervention. In most cases, mild injuries heal within three to six months.
  • Moderate to Severe Injuries: More serious injuries may not heal without assistance. These injuries may require interventions, such as:
    • Physical therapy: Improves mobility and movement, reduces pain, and increases strength
    • Occupational therapy: Improves strength and coordination. Occupational therapy is a very helpful method of improving a child’s ability to function in day-to-day activities, such as holding items, playing, and exercising.
    • Surgery: The most severe cases of Erb’s palsy may require surgical intervention. Surgery is done to repair nerves and restore as much function as possible.  When surgery is necessary, it is best to perform the procedure as soon as possible to improve outcomes.

Talk to your child’s doctor about treatment options that are right for him or her.  With conditions like Erb’s palsy, treatment is often most effective when it includes a team of healthcare providers working together to address all possible factors.

Learn More about Erb’s Palsy

To learn more about Erb’s palsy, visit our Birth Injury Guide topics that are full of information.  If you would like to speak to an attorney about Erb’s palsy caused by medical negligence, fill out our online form to schedule a free case review with one of our attorneys.