What Is Shoulder Dystocia?

baby crying due to shoulder dystocia birth injury

Shoulder dystocia (dis-TOE-she-uh) is a birth injury that occurs when a baby’s shoulder becomes trapped behind the mother’s pubic bone during labour. If the condition is not resolved promptly, the baby can suffer injuries that may result in long-term and even lifelong complications. The mother is also at risk of harm if shoulder dystocia is not managed correctly.

If you suspect medical negligence led to complications during labour and delivery, it’s within your interest to speak with a birth injury lawyer as soon as possible. Klein Lawyers can help if you and/or your baby sustained injury due to issues associated with shoulder dystocia.

What Causes Shoulder Dystocia?

Shoulder dystocia may arise due to events during labour and delivery. For example, risk of shoulder dystocia increases if the doctor uses a vacuum extraction device or forceps to deliver your baby. Use of the drug oxytocin to induce labour and administering an epidural for pain relief are also associated with a higher incidence of shoulder dystocia.

Several different factors can also increase the risk of shoulder dystocia during childbirth. These include:

  • An overly large baby (the risk of shoulder dystocia increases if the fetus weighs more than 4,000 grams)
  • Suboptimal position of the baby prior to labour
  • Excess maternal weight
  • Cephalopelvic disproportion (the medical term for when the baby’s head is larger than the opening in the mother’s pelvis)
  • Maternal diabetes
  • A history of shoulder dystocia in previous births
  • Carrying multiple babies

What Are the Signs of Shoulder Dystocia?

Although fairly uncommon, doctors and other medical professionals involved in childbirth need to be prepared for shoulder dystocia. It is a medical emergency, and failure to manage the condition can have serious adverse effects for baby and mother alike.

Possible signs of shoulder dystocia include:

  • Difficulty passing one or both of the baby’s shoulders through the birth canal after the head has emerged
  • The “turtle” sign: If the baby’s shoulder is stuck, the head may retract back into the mother’s vagina
  • Prolonged labour
  • Fetal distress

If the baby appears to be stuck or in distress, doctors and staff need to take action promptly to avoid complications. Generally, this involves performing different manoeuvres to free the shoulder(s) and position the baby for safe delivery. Alternatively, a Caesarean section may be necessary if the baby cannot be repositioned.

What Are the Complications of Shoulder Dystocia?

The complications of shoulder dystocia can be divided into those that affect the baby and those that affect the mother.

Complications of Shoulder Dystocia in Children

The most common complication associated with shoulder dystocia in newborns is a fractured clavicle (also known as the collarbone). Although painful for the child, clavicle fractures in newborn babies tend to heal quickly and generally result in no long-term impairments.

One of the most serious complications a baby may suffer as a result of shoulder dystocia is fetal oxygen deprivation. The umbilical cord can become compressed in between the baby’s shoulder and the mother’s pelvis, cutting off oxygen to the baby. Brain damage can occur if the supply of oxygen is not quickly restored.

Another major concern with shoulder dystocia is brachial plexus injury. The brachial plexus is a collection of nerves located in the neck and shoulder that control the arms and hands. Injury to the brachial plexus nerves can result in the following conditions:

  • Erb’s palsy: Characterized by dysfunction and weakness of the arm
  • Klumpke’s palsy: Characterized by dysfunction and weakness of the arm and hand

Some brachial plexus injuries can resolve on their own (such as cases where the nerve is stretched but not torn). However, if nerves in the brachial plexus suffer rupture or avulsion (i.e., the nerve is ripped away from the spinal cord), the effects can persist long-term or even be permanent.

Complications of Shoulder Dystocia in Mothers

Shoulder dystocia can also pose a risk to mothers both during and after childbirth. Potential complications for women include:

  • Tearing of the perineum (the region that separates the vagina from the anus)
  • Rupture of the uterus
  • Postpartum hemorrhage (significant bleeding after delivery)

These issues can result in life-threatening blood loss and other complications.

Can I Bring a Medical Malpractice Claim for Shoulder Dystocia?

It is expected that doctors and other staff take decisive action if shoulder dystocia occurs during labour. When they fail in this duty and the baby and/or the mother suffers harm, both individual practitioners and the hospital itself may be liable for medical malpractice.

Common issues of medical negligence where shoulder dystocia is concerned include:

  • Failure to account for maternal and fetal risk factors for shoulder dystocia, such as a large baby, abnormal presentation of the baby, prior history of shoulder dystocia, etc.
  • Missed or delayed diagnosis of shoulder dystocia
  • Errors in performing manoeuvres to alleviate shoulder dystocia
  • Failure to perform a Caesarean section promptly
  • Misuse of forceps and vacuum extractors

Read More: Can You Sue a Doctor in BC?

Parents of children who suffer brachial plexus injuries and other complications of shoulder dystocia can pursue compensation for medical expenses, loss of income, out-of-pocket costs, and more. Additionally, families can seek financial compensation for the child’s pain and suffering, disability, and loss of enjoyment of life.

Mothers who suffer obstetric injuries due to negligent treatment of shoulder dystocia can bring medical malpractice claims as well. Both economic damages and non-economic damages may be recoverable.

Contact Our Vancouver Birth Injury Lawyers Today

The ramifications of a birth injury can be far-reaching. Complications associated with shoulder dystocia can severely limit your child’s development, choice of career, and much more.

If you suspect medical malpractice caused you and/or your baby harm, it is important to start exploring your legal options as soon as possible. Klein Lawyers has extensive experience with complicated legal matters, and we will fight to hold all negligent medical providers accountable.

Please call Klein Lawyers at (604) 874-7171 today for a free consultation. Our birth injury lawyers serve clients in Vancouver and throughout British Columbia.