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Birth Injury: Shoulder Dystocia

Shoulder dystocia is a rare but worrisome birth injury where one or both shoulders of an infant become stuck in the mother's pelvis during delivery. While the majority of injuries caused by shoulder dystocia will heal within 6 to 12 months with no long-term complications, there is a risk for permanent disability or even death in the most severe cases. Fortunately, shoulder dystocia only occurs in a small percentage of births and very few of those cases result in permanent injuries.

Injuries Caused by Shoulder Dystocia

When the infant's shoulders cannot enter or pass through the mother's pelvis during delivery, the baby becomes wedged in the birth canal. The immense pressure of the mother's body trying to force the stuck baby out can lead to injuries to both of them. For the infant, complications include:

  • Lack of oxygen
  • Broken arm or collarbone
  • Shoulder, arm, or hand nerve damage

Complications for the mother include:

  • Tearing or bruising of the cervix, rectum, or vagina
  • Uterine rupture or bruising to the bladder
  • Hemorrhaging

In most cases, injuries from shoulder dystocia to both mother and child will heal relatively quickly, with the possibility of some problems for the baby lasting up to a year. In a very small percentage of cases, however, a child who suffered shoulder dystocia may have permanent paralysis from the physical trauma. A prolonged lack of oxygen may result in permanent brain damage or, in extreme cases, death.

Erb's (Brachial Plexus) Palsy

One of the rare severe injuries that may be caused by shoulder dystocia is brachial plexus palsy, also known as Erb's palsy. This is an injury to nerves in the baby's arms and spinal cord that may result in limited or no movement and loss of sensation in the arms, hands, and fingers. The condition often lasts only a few months, but it could also lead to a permanent disability. In some situations, surgery may be required to correct the problem.

Causes of Shoulder Dystocia

Dystocia means "slow or difficult labor or delivery." Though many factors may be responsible, the majority of shoulder dystocia incidents occur because the baby is unusually large, the mother's pelvis is too small, or some combination thereof. Any birth is technically at risk for shoulder dystocia, but it's more common in cases where:

  • The mother is obese.
  • The mother has diabetes, including gestational diabetes.
  • The mother is carrying multiple babies.
  • The mother has previously had a birth with shoulder dystocia.
  • The mother has a small stature or abnormal pelvic structure.
  • The baby is exceptionally large.
  • The baby is beyond its due date.

Unfortunately, shoulder dystocia cannot be predicted or prevented and is usually discovered only after labor has begun. Mothers with elevated risk factors may consider consulting with their doctor about the possibility of a Cesarean delivery.

Medical Mistake and Negligence

Shoulder dystocia may also result from lengthy stages of labor and, in some cases, medical error or negligence. These medical mistakes often occur in assisted vaginal delivery using forceps or a vacuum, but may also result from a physician's failure to recognize or adequately correct shoulder dystocia. If a physician is insufficiently trained or deviates from generally accepted standards of care, any mistakes they make may become the basis for a medical malpractice suit.

Discuss Your Shoulder Dystocia Claim with an Experienced Attorney

Shoulder dystocia can result in serious injury to your child. After you have discussed treatment options and had your questions answered by your health care provider, you may then want to think about your legal options. Discuss your claim with an experienced medical malpractice attorney today.

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