The brachial plexus is a group of nerves around the shoulder. A loss of movement or weakness of the arm may occur if these nerves are damaged. This injury is called neonatal brachial plexus palsy (NBPP).
Klumpke paralysis; Erb-Duchenne paralysis; Erb's palsy; Brachial palsy; Brachial plexopathy; Obstetrical brachial plexus palsy; Birth-related brachial plexus palsy; Neonatal brachial plexus palsy; NBPP
The nerves of the brachial plexus can be affected by compression inside the mother's womb or during a difficult delivery. Injury may be caused by:
There are different forms of NBPP. The type depends on the amount of arm paralysis:
The following factors increase the risk of NBPP:
NBPP is less common than in the past. Cesarean delivery is used more often when there are concerns about a difficult delivery. Although a C-section reduces the risk of injury, it does not prevent it. A C-section also carries other risks.
NBPP may be confused with a condition called pseudoparalysis. This is seen when the infant has a fracture and is not moving the arm because of pain, but there is no nerve damage.
Symptoms can be seen right away or soon after birth. They may include:
In mild cases, the provider will suggest:
The infant may need to be seen by specialists if the damage is severe or the condition does not improve in the first few weeks.
Surgery may be considered if strength does not improve by 3 to 9 months of age.
Most babies will fully recover within 3 to 4 months. Those who do not recover during this time have a poor outlook. In these cases, there may be a separation of the nerve root from the spinal cord (avulsion).
It is not clear whether surgery to fix the nerve problem can help. Surgery may involve nerve grafts or nerve transfers. It may take many years for healing to occur.
In cases of pseudoparalysis, the child will begin to use the affected arm as the fracture heals. Fractures in infants heal quickly and easily in most cases.
Call your provider if your newborn shows a lack of movement of either arm.
It is difficult to prevent NBPP. Taking steps to avoid a difficult delivery, whenever possible, reduces the risk.
Executive summary: neonatal brachial plexus palsy. Report of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' Task Force on neonatal brachial plexus palsy. Obstet Gynecol. 2014;123(4):902-904. PMID: 24785634 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24785634/.
Park TS, Ranalli NJ. Birth brachial plexus injury. In: Winn HR, ed. Youmans and Winn Neurological Surgery. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 228.
Prazad PA, Rajpal MN, Mangurten HH, Puppala BL. Birth injuries. In: RJ, Fanaroff AA, Walsh MC, eds. Fanaroff and Martin's Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 29.