Risk factors for neonatal brachial plexus palsy attributed to anatomy, physiology, and evolution

Donald C. Dunbar, Joel A. Vilensky, Carlos A. Suárez-Quian, Peter Yi Shen, Jean Paul Metaizeau, Nucharin Supakul

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The inherent variable anatomy of the neonate and the uniquely-shaped maternal birth canal that is associated with the evolution of human bipedalism constitute risk factors for neonatal brachial plexus palsy (NBPP). For example, those neonates with a prefixed brachial plexus (BP) are at greater risk of trauma due to lateral neck traction during delivery than those with a normal or postfixed BP. Compared to adults, neonates also have extremely large and heavy heads (high head: body ratio) set upon necks with muscles and ligaments that are weak and poorly developed. Accordingly, insufficient cranial stability can place large torques on the cervical spinal nerves. In addition, the pelvic changes necessary for habitual bipedal posture resulted in a uniquely-shaped, obstruction-filled, sinusoidal birth canal, requiring the human fetus to complete a complicated series of rotations to successfully traverse it. Furthermore, although there are many risk factors that are known to contribute to NBPP, the specific anatomy and physiology of the neonate, except for macrosomia, is not considered to be one of them. In fact, currently, the amount of lateral traction applied to the neck during delivery is the overwhelming legal factor that is used to evaluate whether a birth attendant is liable in cases of permanent NBPP. Here, we suggest that the specific anatomy and physiology of the neonate and mother, which are clearly not within the control of the birth attendant, should also be considered when assessing liability in cases of NBPP.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalClinical Anatomy
StateAccepted/In press - 2021


  • bipedalism
  • neonatal brachial plexus palsy
  • newborn
  • parturition
  • shoulder dystocia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Histology


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