Common Questions about Brachial Plexus Injuries

Most of us cannot imagine having limited use of our arms.  But for millions of people, that is just part of everyday life after a brachial plexus injury.  Brachial plexus injuries can occur for several reasons, but they are most common during the neonatal period – during or shortly after childbirth.  The impact of a brachial plexus injury can be significant for the person affected, and his or her loved ones.  Let’s review some of the most common questions about brachial plexus injuries.

What is the Brachial Plexus?

The brachial plexus is a system of nerves that run from the spine to the shoulder, down the arm, and to the hand.  This system of nerves conducts signals from the brain that control movement, sensation, and function from the shoulder down to the fingertips.

What is a Brachial Plexus Injury?

A brachial plexus injury is an injury to the nerves that causes trauma or inflammation.  Trauma or inflammation can interrupt signals from the brain, which disrupts sensory functions.  Brachial plexus injuries can have a tremendous impact on mobility, control, and function of the affected side.  There are several different classifications of brachial plexus injury, including:

  • Neurapraxia: Neurapraxia is the most common brachial plexus injury. This injury involves minor tears or strains in the nerve system.
  • Neuroma: Neuroma is a type of brachial plexus injury that occurs when scar tissue from an injury grows over the nerves. Pressure from scar tissue on the nerve can interrupt signals from the brain.
  • Erb’s Palsy: Erb’s palsy is a more serious form of brachial plexus injury that is caused by a rupture in the nerve system. When there are complete ruptures in the nerve system, symptoms – and resulting treatments – are often more complex and lengthy.
  • Klumpke’s Palsy: When the lower part of the brachial plexus system is injured, it is often called Klumpke’s palsy. This injury primarily affects the hand, but may extend up into the arm.

Why are Brachial Plexus Injuries Common During Childbirth?

Childbirth is difficult in the best of circumstances.  When the process of labor and delivery becomes complicated or “difficult”, the risk of birth injuries increases.  Some of the factors that can lead to a difficult birth and brachial plexus injury include:

  • Breech position
  • Prolonged labor
  • Infant becoming stuck in the birth canal
  • Large infant requiring more force for delivery
  • Improper use of birthing tools (forceps and vacuums)

Improper use of forceps and vacuums during delivery is an unfortunately common occurrence.  When doctors use too much force, or improperly apply the devices, it can cause stretching, tearing, or trauma to the infant’s head, neck, and shoulders.  Not only is this an unfortunate situation, but it may also be medical malpractice.

How Common are Brachial Plexus Injuries During Childbirth?

Brachial plexus injuries are estimated to occur in .05 to four out of every 1,000 births.  More generally, sources suggest that one or two infants out of every 1,000 will experience a brachial plexus injury.

What are the Symptoms of Brachial Plexus Injuries?

Brachial plexus injuries may present different symptoms depending on the type and severity of the injury.  Generally speaking, symptoms include:

  • Limited mobility on the affected side
  • Weakness or numbness in the affected arm and hand
  • Impaired reflexes
  • Pain, tingling, or burning sensation
  • Neck pain

The more severe the injury is, the more severe and persistent the symptoms may be.  Remember that every injury is different.

Can Brachial Plexus Injuries be Treated?

Brachial plexus injuries can often be treated, but the type of treatment and prognosis will vary depending on the severity of the injury and the overall health of the child.  As a general rule, treatment options and outcomes can be described as the following:

  • Neurapraxia: Neurapraxia can cause pain and discomfort, but these injuries generally resolve on their own within a few months.
  • Neuroma: Minor cases of neuroma may resolve on their own, but serious pressure may require surgical intervention.
  • Erb’s Palsy: Because rupture is a more severe diagnosis, treatment options will vary, but often include a combination of medications, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and surgery.
  • Klumpke’s Palsy: Minor cases of Klumpke’s palsy may resolve on their own with time, but more severe cases may require therapy, medication, or even surgery.

Children with minor or moderate injuries may not require surgery.  If there is a rupture or avulsion, then surgical intervention is often necessary.  Any form of treatment provided should be initiated in a timely manner to prevent further injuries.

Are Brachial Plexus Injuries Preventable?

Brachial plexus injuries are often preventable, yet they remain one of the most common birth injuries.  Prevention strategies to reduce the risk of birth injuries includes:

  • Careful monitoring of mother and child during pregnancy
  • Careful monitoring of mother and child during labor and delivery
  • Recognizing the risk of a large infant and planning for delivery accordingly
  • Ordering a Cesarean section quickly after signs of distress, complications, or an unsuccessful vaginal birth

Will My Child be Permanently or Noticeably Disabled?

Whether or not your child is permanently or noticeably disabled will depend largely on the cause and severity of the injury.  Other health factors or conditions can also impact how your child heals and responds to treatment.  In some cases, an injury to the brachial plexus system can cause the affected arm to grow at a slower pace than the other.  Sometimes this can be noticeable, but not always.  The arm does continue to grow, but the difference may be noticeable as your child gets older.

What Should I do if My Child Was Injured During Birth?

If your child was injured during birth, it is natural that you are emotional and want answers.  If you are concerned that your child’s injury was caused by a healthcare provider who was careless or acted improperly, then it may be helpful to talk to an attorney about your legal rights.

If your child’s brachial plexus injury was caused by a negligent healthcare provider, then you have the right to file a lawsuit and pursue damages against that provider.  The birth injury lawsuit process can be complex, however, so it is always best to speak with an attorney before attempting legal action.

Getting Help with Your Birth Injury Case

To find out more about medical malpractice, birth injuries, and your legal rights, contact Brown & Brothers to speak with one of our attorneys.  We can help you understand and protect your legal rights.  To schedule a free consultation, call us toll free at 877-415-6603, or fill out our online form and we will get in touch with you as soon as possible.