7 Long-Term Effects of Brachial Plexus Birth Injuries April 26, 2024.

7 Long-Term Effects of Brachial Plexus Birth Injuries

For many mothers, going into labor is one of the most amazing and life-changing experiences of their lives. Despite the utter joy of having a child, labor can also be stressful and scary. It is especially scary if there are complications that can result in long-term injuries to the baby. A common birth injury that can lead to long-term complications is brachial plexus injuries.

Brachial Plexus Birth Injury Overview

Brachial plexus nerves run from the neck, down to the arms and hands. These nerves send sensory signals and control wrist, arm, and hand movements. So, when a child reaches for a toy or jerks their hand away when they touch something cold the brachial plexus nerves are at work.

Even with advances in healthcare, brachial plexus injuries are still common during birth. In the United States, there are about 2-3 infants, out of 1,000 births, that will have brachial plexus injuries. The good news is that around 70% of babies will fully recover within a year. However, the remaining 30% may have to live with life-long disabilities.

Causes and Risk Factors

Brachial plexus injuries can occur at birth from excessive pulling or stretching of the infant’s neck or head. This often happens when the obstetrician forcefully attempts to pull the baby from the birth canal if their shoulders are stuck, or if the labor isn't progressing.

Brachial plexus injuries can potentially happen during any birth, however, there are risk factors that increase the likelihood of these injuries occurring.

The risk factors of brachial plexus injuries at birth include:

  1. Maternal gestational diabetes
  2. Breech position
  3. Larger than average baby
  4. Prolonged labor
  5. Shoulder dystocia
  6. Forceps or vacuum-assisted delivery
  7. Twins or multiple births

7 Long-Term Effects of Brachial Plexus Birth Injuries

Brachial plexus birth injuries can range from mild to severe. Some infants make a full recovery within a few weeks, while others experience permanent nerve damage.

Possible long-term effects of brachial plexus birth injuries include:

1. Muscle Atrophy

Nerves can take several months to years to repair. When brachial plexus injuries occur, it causes the affected arm to have little, if any, use. The issue is when muscles are not used for a prolonged period of time, then they will “shrink” or deteriorate. This is called muscle atrophy.

If there was severe damage to the brachial plexus nerves, then this condition will most likely not be able to be reversed. This can leave your child with little to no movement in the affected arm.

2. Limb Length Discrepancy

Brachial plexus injuries can lead to limb length discrepancies. As babies with brachial plexus injuries grow, the affected arm may grow slower or not as long as the unaffected side. The arm length difference could be unnoticeable, like half of an inch, or very noticeable, like several inches.

Children with small limb length discrepancies should be able to adjust to the length differences. But, children who have large limb length differences may have trouble with performing daily activities.

3. Erb’s Palsy

Erb’s Palsy is the most common neurological birth injury. Erb’s Palsy affects the upper brachial plexus nerves, which can cause the loss of movement and sensation in the shoulder.

Erb’s Palsy affects children differently, depending on the severity of the nerve damage and if proper treatment was started early. In mild cases, most children fully heal in less than a year.

However, in severe cases, or cases where proper treatment was given, it may cause a permanent disability. Children in these situations may experience severe pain, muscle weakness, involuntary spasms, and limited range of motion in the arm. As well as many children with severe Erb’s Palsy never regain full function of their arm or hand.

4. Muscle Contracture

Chronic muscle tightness can occur in children who have Erb’s Palsy from brachial plexus injuries. This chronic muscle tightening is called a muscle contracture. This occurs when muscles, joints, and tendons are permanently shortened and tightened. Muscle contractures cause pain, loss of movement in the joint or muscle, and limited range of motion.

Contractures can lead to other problems as well, such as progressive dysplasia which causes abnormal bone growth and joint degeneration.

5. Klumpke’s palsy

Klumpke’s Palsy affects the lower brachial plexus nerves, which can lead to the loss of movement or sensation in the wrist, hand, and fingers. The Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD) estimates that 92% of infants with mild Klumpke’s Palsy will recover in 12 months. Children who don't recover may experience severe pain and total paralysis of their wrist, hand, and fingers.

6. Horner Syndrome

Horner Syndrome is a neurological condition that affects communication between the brain and eyes. Children with Horner Syndrome may have constricted pupils and drooping eyelids. Usually, this condition only affects one side of the face. There is no cure for Horner Syndrome, but there are medications that can be taken to improve the symptoms.

7. Mental Health Issues

One of the biggest long-term effects of brachial plexus injuries, besides the physical aspect, is the mental impact as the child grows up. It is natural for children to want to “fit in” with their peers. So, when they are unable to do the same activities as their friends, they may feel like they don’t fit in. Research has shown that children with physical disabilities are more likely to have feelings of depression, loneliness, and self-esteem issues.

When to Contact Cleveland Birth Injury Attorneys

It is important to contact an experienced birth injury attorney as soon as you learn of your child’s brachial plexus injuries. You don't have to wait to call an attorney- the attorney may be able to start advocating for you and your child while you’re still in the hospital.

If your baby suffered brachial plexus injuries at birth, due to a doctor’s or nurse’s negligence, we encourage you to call our office at (440) 333-3800.