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Birth Injury: Shoulder Dystocia

Shoulder dystocia is a rare but worrisome birth injury and a common cause of Erb's palsy. Erb's palsy, known as a brachial plexus injury, is a birth injury to the shoulder that can happen when a baby's shoulder gets stuck in the mother's pelvis during delivery.

The majority of injuries caused by shoulder dystocia heal within six to 12 months with no long-term complications. But, in severe cases, there is a risk of permanent disability or death. Fortunately, shoulder dystocia only happens in a small percentage of births, and very few of those cases result in permanent injuries.

Injuries Caused by Shoulder Dystocia

When an infant's shoulders can't enter or pass through the mother's pelvis during delivery, the baby becomes wedged in the birth canal. This condition causes immense pressure and can lead to injuries to the mother and infant.

For the infant, complications include:

  • Lack of oxygen
  • Broken arm or collarbone
  • Nerve damage in the shoulder, arm, or hand

Complications for the mother include:

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

Shoulder dystocia injuries to the mother and child will heal relatively quickly, with the possibility of some problems for the baby lasting up to a year.

In a small percentage of cases, a child who has suffered from shoulder dystocia may have permanent paralysis from the physical trauma. A prolonged lack of oxygen may result in permanent brain damage. If oxygen does not reach the brain during delivery due to shoulder dystocia, it can cause cerebral palsy. In extreme cases, the baby may die.

Erb's (Brachial Plexus) Palsy

One of the rare, severe injuries caused by shoulder dystocia is brachial plexus palsy, also known as Erb's palsy. Shoulder dystocia happens when the baby's shoulder becomes stuck in the mother's pelvic bone during delivery. If the baby experiences trauma to their shoulder due to excessive force, they may suffer permanent brachial plexus nerve damage.

Risk factors for Erb's palsy include having a large baby. It can also occur after a C-section. Erb's palsy 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 can also lead to a permanent disability. Some situations require surgery to correct the problem.

Causes of Shoulder Dystocia

Dystocia means slow or difficult labor or delivery. The majority of shoulder dystocia incidents occur because the baby's head is unusually large, the mother's pelvis is too small, or both.

The risk of shoulder dystocia increases with:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes, including gestational diabetes
  • Carrying multiple babies
  • Experiencing shoulder dystocia in a previous birth
  • Small stature or abnormal pelvic structure
  • A baby with an exceptionally high birth weight
  • Delivery past due date

Unfortunately, medical professionals can't predict shoulder dystocia. It's usually discovered after labor has begun. Mothers with elevated risk factors may consider consulting with their doctor about the possibility of a Cesarean delivery.

Medical Mistakes and Negligence

Shoulder dystocia may also result from lengthy stages of labor and, in some cases, medical error or negligence. These medical mistakes often happen in assisted vaginal delivery using forceps or a vacuum. Mistakes may also result from a physician's failure to recognize or adequately correct shoulder dystocia when discovered or should have been discovered.

If a physician is insufficiently trained or deviates from generally accepted standards of care, any mistakes may become the basis for a medical malpractice suit.

Discuss Your Shoulder Dystocia Claim With an Experienced Attorney

Cases of shoulder dystocia can result in serious injury to your child. After you have discussed treatment options with your health care provider, it's wise to seek legal advice from a medical malpractice lawyer. Based on the case evaluation, you may wish to file a medical malpractice claim as a result of the birth injury.

A medical malpractice lawsuit may be able to provide compensation for damages related to any medical negligence. A birth injury lawyer can check your birth injury case to determine how to pursue a medical malpractice case.

Discuss the next steps with an experienced medical malpractice attorney today.

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