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Is shoulder dystocia caused by a doctor's mistake?

Pitt County parents spend months anticipating the arrival of a new baby. Few parents are prepared for the helpless feelings that occur when something goes wrong during the delivery process. Injuries from shoulder dystocia are rare, but they do happen and may be the result of medical negligence.

Shoulder dystocia is often an unpredictable condition in which a baby's shoulders become stuck within the birth canal during delivery. The condition can place both the mother and baby in danger. Shoulder dystocia happens infrequently and injuries to an infant typically are temporary, lasting no longer than a year, but in rare instances damage can cause permanent disability or death.

Mothers straining to deliver a baby may suffer intense bleeding following the birth, uterine rupture and internal bruises and tears. The baby may suffer broken bones, paralysis from nerve damage or a brain injury due to oxygen deprivation.

Shoulder dystocia sometimes leads to a condition called brachial plexus palsy or Erb's palsy, a nerve injury that may weaken or paralyze an infant's hands and arms. The condition may be temporary or permanent, depending on the type of damage to the baby's nerves during birth.

Some women are at greater risk than others for shoulder dystocia particularly when the birth involves a larger-than-average baby. Risks of a shoulder dystocia birth also are higher for diabetic and obese mothers and women with small pelvises, multiple births, induced and long labors, operative or tool-assisted births and previous instances of shoulder dystocia. Sometimes, shoulder dystocia happens when none of these conditions are present.

Negligence occurs when doctors and delivery room staff members don't respond properly to shoulder dystocia, according to medical standards. A doctor may not be able to prevent the condition, but a physician should act accordingly to prevent unnecessary harm. Parents may file medical malpractice claims against health care professionals who act carelessly during a delivery.

Source: March of Dimes, "Shoulder dystocia," accessed May. 29, 2015

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