The brachial plexus nerves, located in your shoulder, are central to using your arms. Unfortunately, some children suffer from what’s called Erb’s palsy, an injury that affects these important nerves. It usually occurs during a difficult childbirth where the doctor pulls too hard on the infant in an attempt to assist their exit. By putting too much pressure on the neck, these nerves in the shoulders can get hurt, despite the physician’s best intentions.
Symptoms of Erb’s Palsy
Although the injury may seem localized, nerve damage can take on a number of different forms. The symptoms will depend on where the injury occurred and how severe it was.
For example, some infants will experience a bit of weakness or discomfort in the affected arm. They may even show decreased grip strength. Others, though, may experience an intense amount of pain and cry loudly, despite nothing happening to them that you can see.
Sometimes, you will notice that the child is turning their arm inward. Keeping the arm bent toward the body is often more comfortable with damaged nerves. However, they may also keep it straight, with their hand slightly cupped and pointing out. If your child seems to be unable to use one of their arms it is a good chance something is wrong and it might be Erb’s palsy.
Many times, Erb’s palsy will heal all on its own. You never want to bet on this occurring though, which is why you should always have a physician look at the injury. They may prescribe a number of treatments.
Hydrotherapy is used a lot of times as a type of physical therapy to treat Erb’s palsy. Thanks to an anti-gravity setting, a baby’s body can be worked on without undue stress causing further pain. It also provides a great way for them to build up their muscles and even use the affected area without suffering spasms.
While many people are not familiar with hydrotherapy, it is endorsed by the American Cancer Society (ACS) for a number of injuries. Aside from helping heal Erb’s palsy, hydrotherapy is a great way to relieve your child’s pain.
Physical therapy is almost always called upon to help repair the damage done by Erb’s palsy. Most times, a physical therapist can help a child move past this injury within one to three months. However, an experienced physical therapist will be able to estimate the recovery time once they assess your child.
There are a number of exercises that a physical therapy regimen may involve. Common examples include:
- Sensory stimulation
- Mild stretching exercises
- Strength-building exercises
- Range of motion exercises
Most times, parents will be tasked with carrying out these exercises at home too. Physical therapists will spend time with them to ensure they understand what they will be doing.
Generally, surgery is followed up by occupational therapy. A lot of times, this will involve equipment designed specifically for a child of this age to regain full use of their arm.
Surgery usually is not recommended on young children. However, there are times when this is the only option. Sometimes physical therapy is not able to heal the child by itself.
When surgery is recommended, it will be one of two forms:
- Nerve Decompression: a minimally invasive procedure where the surgeon will make a tiny incision and use a special tool to decompress the damaged nerves.
- Nerve Graft Repairs: this procedure involves transferring healthy nerves from one part of the body (i.e. the leg) and, using graft, inserting them where the damage was done so that they can regenerate.
Treating Erb’s palsy can result in a complete recovery. Even in cases where functionality does not 100% return, a baby can regain most of the use of their shoulder, arm and hand.