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Can Doctors Be Held Responsible for Brachial Plexus Palsy?

Some child births will result in injury that the child will live with forever, and it can happen regardless of the best efforts of medical professionals to avoid it. However, sometimes birth injuries occur because of medical intervention, either accidentally or due to malpractice on the part of the doctors. Can brachial plexus palsy happen this way and, if so, can parents seek damages on behalf of their injured child?

What Is Brachial Plexus Palsy?

Brachial plexus palsy, sometimes known as Erb’s palsy, is an injury to the brachial plexus that happens during childbirth and can lead to impaired use of the child’s hand and arm. The brachial plexus is made of many nerves that run from the base of the neck and through the arm. These nerves are essential for providing signals for movement and feeling to the arm and hand.

Brachial plexus palsy can happen during particularly difficult births in which the baby’s shoulders get stuck in the mother’s pelvis. To free the trapped shoulders, the baby’s head may need to be pulled to either side, which can stretch the brachial plexus and cause irreversible damage. In some cases, the nerves can be ripped or even torn from the spinal cord.

Symptoms of Brachial Plexus Palsy

Symptoms of brachial plexus palsy depend on how severe the injury is. Minor brachial plexus palsy symptoms, also known as stingers and burners, include:

  • A burning sensation or electric shock sensation travelling down the arm
  • Weakness or numbness in the arm

Symptoms of minor brachial plexus palsy can linger for a long time, or they can happen in short bursts. Symptoms of brachial plexus injuries that are more severe include:

  • Inability to use certain hand, arm, or shoulder muscles
  • Weakness in certain hand, arm, or shoulder muscles
  • Complete inability to move the affected arm, including the hand and shoulder
  • Severe discomfort and pain

Treatments for Brachial Plexus Palsy

Some newborns with brachial plexus palsy will heal on their own over time, but this recovery can be slow. It can take as long as 2 years for a child to be fully healed, and parents must exercise their child’s arm during the process to ensure full recovery. However, there are cases where the injury is so severe that medical intervention is necessary to repair or improve it.

Nonsurgical Care

The most common and effective nonsurgical treatment for brachial plexus palsy is daily physical therapy. Babies cannot perform this therapy on their own, so parents must be active in keeping the baby’s joints limber and keeping the working muscles strong. Doctors will teach parents exercises to do with their baby to keep the arm in as good condition as possible.

This type of therapy will help maintain the baby’s range of motion in the elbow, wrist, hand, and shoulder, and will prevent their wrist from becoming stiff permanently.

Surgical Care

In certain severe situations where physical therapy is not effective, the doctor may recommend surgery. There are multiple types of surgery that are effective in treating brachial plexus palsy, including:

  • Microsurgery: Microsurgery is performed using microscopes and specialized tools made specifically for this type of surgery. Microsurgery can be done to perform a nerve graft, where healthy nerves are taken from another spot in the body and patched to the ruptured nerves.
  • Tendon transfer: A healthy tendon is taken from another spot in the body and attached to the shoulder to improve the baby’s use of their arm.
  • Joint surgery: In some cases of brachial plexus palsy, the joints can become stiff due to thickened soft tissue that builds up from lack of motion. This tissue can be released through surgery, which will increase the range of motion in the arm.

Can Brachial Plexus Palsy Be the Result of Medical Malpractice?

Unfortunately, brachial plexus palsy can be the direct result of medical malpractice on the part of the doctor. When a medical professional does not meet the standard of care required of them, or when they act in a negligent manner that leads to injury, they have committed medical malpractice. Some of the ways brachial plexus palsy can be caused by malpractice or negligence include:

  • Not preventing shoulders from getting stuck: Common techniques can be used to prevent a baby’s shoulders from getting stuck in the mother’s pelvis. If a doctor fails to use one of these techniques when another reasonable physician would have, they may have committed malpractice.
  • Putting too much pressure on the baby’s head: Doctors may attempt to help a baby get dislodged from the mother’s pelvic bone by applying an excessive amount of pressure to the head and shoulders, which can be a direct cause of brachial plexus palsy. There are safer methods for delivering children when this issue occurs, and if injury results due to the excessive pressure, the doctor may be liable for medical malpractice.
  • Incorrect vacuum use: In some complicated births, such as ones where the baby is in a breech position, the labor has been extended, or there are alarming vital signs coming from the baby, the doctor may be forced to use a vacuum to deliver the child. If the vacuum isn’t used properly, it can damage the baby’s head and cause nerve damage resulting in brachial plexus palsy.
  • Incorrect forceps use: Forceps are used to grab the baby’s skull during childbirth and help guide them through the birth canal. This must be done very gently because of how fragile the baby’s skull and neck are at this stage. If used incorrectly, they can cause damage to the nerves in the neck and cause brachial plexus palsy.
  • Breech position: By the eighth month of pregnancy, doctors can tell whether the baby will be in a breech position at labor. A baby born in the breech position comes out feet-first, which often leads to stress and pressure on the baby’s neck and shoulders. This stress can lead to brachial plexus palsy if severe enough. A doctor who failed to check for breech positioning prior to birth could be liable for medical malpractice.

Ultimately, when a physician does not monitor an infant in the final days and hours before birth, and preventable injuries occur as a result, that doctor may be liable for damages.

What Damages Can Be Recovered in a Birth Injury Lawsuit?

The changes caused by a birth injury can be a significant undertaking for new parents, both emotionally and financially. A successful birth injury lawsuit will award monetary damages to the parents to cover medical expenses as well as intangible losses, such as pain and suffering. Some examples of tangible expenses that can be recovered include:

  • Professional physical therapy
  • Follow-up appointments with doctors
  • Physiotherapy appointments
  • Any equipment, such as splints, that were used to prevent more complications and provide comfort to the child
  • Surgeries required to correct the brachial plexus injury
  • MRIs, x-rays, and other medical testing
  • Medications used in relation to the injury

Contact an Attorney Today

If your child was injured during birth and developed brachial plexus palsy, contact Rash Mueller today. We understand that watching your child go through a birth injury is emotionally draining and life-altering, which is why we fight hard on behalf of our clients to get them the compensation they deserve. With over 40 years of collective litigation experience, we have a deep understanding of the complex laws regarding medical malpractice, as well as the legal system in which they are implemented. Reach out for a free consultation today at (954) 914-7116 or via our contact form.