Birth trauma is common in the U.S. – affecting up to 37 out of 1,000 babies – and doesn’t have long-term impact on health in most cases. But when it does, the physical damage can manifest in many different ways. One particular birth injury, according to a new Swedish study, may even carry mental consequences.
The researchers examined brachial plexus injury, more commonly known as Erb’s palsy: a birth injury involving damage to the brachial plexus nerves (running from the spine to the arms and hands). Certain groups of these children, they found, have a higher risk than others of developing mental illnesses as teenagers. Here’s a look at the study and its implications for the children and their families.
The Risk Factors for Future Mental Illness
The researchers analyzed data on more than 600,000 Swedish children born between 1987 and 1993. Nearly 1,600 of them had brachial plexus palsy.
First, they noted this group used anti-depressants and similar medications more frequently than their peers.
They also found 2 factors that made the problem more severe: income and gender. Children from low-income backgrounds developed mental health issues at higher rates than their wealthier counterparts. And though teenage girls were at higher risk than boys overall, the risk was more severe for girls from low-income families.
Girls with low socioeconomic status, then, are more than twice as likely to suffer from poor mental health than boys from wealthy families. Researchers believe this is down to “trauma and discrimination on many levels.”
“In my previous research, I have seen how the experiences and consequences of school-related stress are greater in girls than in boys,” said Elia Psouni, lead researcher and associate professor of developmental psychology at Lund University, Sweden.
The links between a child’s socioeconomic background and mental illness are well-established. Previous studies say mental health issues can be exacerbated by a child’s perceived social status and reduced access to support and services. Another key trigger – perhaps most relevant in this case – is hardship suffered by the family as a whole.
Brachial Plexus Palsy and Medical Errors
Brachial plexus injury can vary in type and severity, from barely noticeable to temporary paralysis to permanent inability to move the arm or hand. Most forms are treatable. Some babies can move as normal within a few months; for others, if the injury is permanent, special exercises can help strengthen the muscles.
Yet like other birth injuries, brachial plexus palsy is avoidable. The injury occurs when the baby’s head is pushed too forcefully away from the shoulder, which stretches or severs the nerves. When steps to avoid birth complications are overlooked or deliberately ignored, the doctor, nurse, or other hospital staff is at fault.
The injustice of preventable birth injury can take its toll on families. The child themselves may face barriers their peers don’t, in sports for example, while parents must deal with crippling medical costs. In other words, it’s not just the physical injury that lasts a lifetime. All the emotional, financial, and in this case, mental stress that comes with it can, too.
Why Studies Like This Are Crucial
Sadly, medical error doesn’t only end in injury and doesn’t only involve birth. Death can arise from cases of surgical injury, adverse drug events, hospital infections, falls, and other incidents. Recent data put the annual death toll at 440,000 in the United States. Even previous, smaller estimations make medical error the country’s third-leading cause of death. And experts warn the number could be much higher, given doctors’ tendency to hide their mistakes.
All physical, mental, and fatal injury considered, negligent doctors have a lot to answer for. And they can.
More and more studies now focus on developing strategies doctors and patients can use to avoid these events. On the patient’s side, for example, looking out for signs of wrongdoing. On the doctor’s part, honesty and accountability are simple but life-saving mindsets to adopt when responsible for someone’s life.
Swedish researchers hope this study will raise awareness of the long-term issues surrounding brachial plexus injury. Psouni expects that “children will continue to receive help, even after the physical injury has been treated, by a professional team working closely with the patient.”
Of course, prevention is better than a cure. The study highlights a much more important goal to work toward: to stop these birth injuries from happening altogether.