Shoulder Dystocia: Reasons, Signs & Treatment

Shoulder Dystocia During Childbirth

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Sabiha Anjum (Gynecologist/Obstetrician)
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Shoulder dystocia is a rare condition that can sometimes be seen during delivery after the head of the foetus has emerged from the mother’s body. The baby’s shoulder (left or right) stays back behind the mother’s pubic bone and results in pressure. Occasionally, the baby’s posterior shoulder puts pressure on the mother’s sacrum (large bone at the base of the spine). If either of these cases occurs, the rest of the baby’s body does not come out easily. This complication is termed Infant Shoulder Dystocia. Know more about this complication in the article below.

What Is Shoulder Dystocia?

Shoulder Dystocia is defined as an obstetric complication which is associated with cephalic vaginal deliveries where the baby’s head enters the pelvis first. As explained earlier, it happens only when the baby’s shoulders get stuck after the head emerges from the mother’s vagina. Infant shoulder dystocia happens when one or both the shoulders are placed in a direction opposite to the maternal pelvic bones.

Several reasons could lead to infant shoulder dystocia. Read on to know some causes and symptoms of this complication.

Causes of Shoulder Dystocia

While the level of complications depends from one pregnant woman to another, here are some reasons that could cause infant shoulder dystocia:

  • Macrosomia: It is a condition in which the newborn baby has excessive birth weight. Babies with more weight than general cases, tend to have a heavy body which can make vaginal delivery difficult.
  • Abnormal Pelvic Anatomy: There are chances that a small pelvis would result in the baby getting stuck.
  • Gestational Diabetes: This increases the chances of the baby putting on weight on the torso, which may come in the way of a smooth passage through the birth canal.
  • Post-Dated Pregnancy: Prolonged stay of the baby in a mother’s womb tends to the increased overall growth of the baby leading to difficult vaginal delivery.
  • Labour Abnormalities: Delayed dynamic period of first stage labour when the cervix dilates to about 8 cm, and prolonged second stage labour can cause shoulder dystocia. Having induced labour can also increase the risk of this complication.
  • Oxytocin and Anaesthesia: While there is no data to establish a correlation between the use of oxytocin and anaesthesia to shoulder dystocia, there is an indirect connection which is seen as a risk factor. Oxytocin is used for macrosomic babies, and, as mentioned above, large babies are more prone to cause the complication.

Causes of Shoulder Dystocia

Shoulder Dystocia Signs and Symptoms

Here are some signs and symptoms seen in the case of infant shoulder dystocia:

  • Mothers can experience symptoms ranging from bruising of the bladder, rectum, vagina, or cervix, or even haemorrhaging.
  • The baby could face difficulties in emerging with normal traction and may require the mother to give extra pressure to push the remaining part of the body out.
  • A major complication faced during shoulder dystocia is when the foetal head suddenly retracts against the mother’s perineum after emerging out of the vagina. This complication is also called ‘Turtle Sign in Shoulder Dystocia’. It also leads to bulged cheeks of the infant and occurs because the shoulders of the infant are not able to emerge from the mother’s pelvic cavity with the pressure developed inside. The condition is so named as it resembles a turtle putting its head back into the shell.

Diagnosis of Shoulder Dystocia

No anticipation or predictions can be made before the birth of the possibility of shoulder dystocia occurring. The helpers need to make a quick diagnosis of this condition and react instantly.

Shoulder dystocia can lead to more complications if prompt action is not taken. Let’s take a look at them before discussing the risks and the treatment.

Shoulder Dystocia Complications

This condition causes severe complications in both the mother and the infant.


  • Postpartum haemorrhage, which is excessive bleeding within 24 hours of childbirth.
  • Cervicovaginal lacerations which are tears in the cervix and vagina during labour and delivery.
  • Rectovaginal fistula where a connection opens up between the lower part of the large intestine and the vagina which may cause stool and gas to pass into it.
  • Lacerations of the rectum which are cuts in the anal tissue.
  • Symphyseal separation or diathesis, which is an abnormally large gap between the pubic bones after delivery.
  • Third- or a fourth-degree episiotomy where the laceration extends into the muscle that surrounds the anus, or uterine wall rupture.
  • Bladder atony which is the inability to control the bladder function.


  • Brachial plexus palsy (Erb’s palsy), which is an excessive weakness of the muscles of the shoulder and arm because of damage to the nerves that link them to the spine.
  • Broken collarbone (clavicular fracture).
  • Foetal death.
  • Foetal hypoxia (decreased oxygen supply) with or without permanent neurologic damage.
  • Wounds, which are bruises on the skin where the blood capillaries have ruptured.
  • Humeral fracture, which is a broken bone in the upper arm.

Shoulder Dystocia Complications

Who Is at Risk for Shoulder Dystocia?

Some of the common shoulder dystocia risk factors include:

  • Maternal obesity and age over 38 years.
  • Excessive prenatal weight gain.
  • Maternal diabetes.
  • Protracted labour, which is slow progress of labour when the cervix does not dilate at the expected speed or the baby does not descend as expected.
  • Foetal macrosomia or large baby.
  • Multiparous women; women who have given birth multiple times, or are carrying multiple babies.
  • Previous history of shoulder dystocia.
  • Short-statured women.

Who Is at Risk for Shoulder Dystocia?

How Is Shoulder Dystocia Treated and Managed?

A widely applicable treatment strategy followed by obstetricians can be understood by the Pneumonic “HELPERR”:

H – Call for help.

E – Evaluating episiotomy (small vaginal incision).

L – Legs (The doctor may ask the mother-to-be to pull her legs toward the stomach. This is also called the McRoberts manoeuvre).

P – Suprapubic pressure. The baby will be encouraged to rotate by putting pressure on a specific area of the pelvis.

E – Entering manoeuvres procedure (internal rotation). This involves turning the baby’s shoulders in the womb to help the movement through the pelvis.

R – Removal of the posterior arm from the birth canal. This involves freeing one arm from the birth canal.

R – Rolling of the patient. The doctor may ask the mother-to-be to get down on all fours to help the movement of the baby.

Let’s understand the above treatment procedure in more detail.

Manoeuvers Used for Shoulder Dystocia:

  • McRoberts Manoeuvre  In this procedure, the mother-to-be’s hips are flexed, and her thighs are positioned up onto her abdomen. This is done with the help of nurses and family members present in the delivery room. This position flattens the mother’s sacral promontory (inward projecting part of the sacral vertebra) by increasing the angle of inclination between the symphysis pubis (joint between left and right pubic bones). This helps orient the symphysis pubis more horizontally to facilitate delivery.
  • Suprapubic pressure – This is an attempt to manually help in removing the infant shoulder from behind the symphysis pubis. It is usually performed by a helper who places a hand just above the mother’s pubic bone and pushes the posterior aspect of the infant’s shoulder in one direction or the other. Pushing the shoulder may turn the shoulder to an oblique angle which helps the delivery to be smooth and easy.
  • Delivery of the posterior arm  Here, the helper places his or her hand behind the posterior shoulder of the foetus and locates the arm. This arm is then swept across the foetal chest and delivered. This allows the foetus to drop into the birth canal, freeing the shoulder. With the posterior arm and shoulder now delivered, it is relatively easy to rotate the infant, dislodge the anterior shoulder, and complete the delivery of the baby.
  • Delivery of the posterior shoulder – Also called menticoglou manoeuvre, this involves putting a finger or soft catheter behind the posterior shoulder of the foetus to pull it downward. This enables the grasping of the posterior arm, allowing the infant to be delivered, followed by delivery of the trunk.

How Is Shoulder Dystocia Treated and Managed?

Secondary Manoeuvre:

  • Wood’s Screw Manoeuvre– In this procedure, the anterior shoulder is pressed toward the chest, and the posterior shoulder is pressed back to rotate the baby so that it faces backwards. This helps release the shoulder and deliver the baby.
  • Rubin Manoeuvre – This procedure involves pushing on the posterior surface of the posterior shoulder (counterclockwise rotation) which helps in the flexing of shoulders across the chest. This decreases the distance between the shoulders so that the size of the baby is narrowed and he fits through the pelvis.

Last Resort Techniques:

  • Deliberate Fracture of the Clavicle This technique is usually not preferred as it poses a major threat to vital organs. However, it can be performed in a bid to save the mother’s life, only if there is a miscarriage.
  • Gaskin All-Fours Manoeuvre – This procedure involves placing the mother on her hands and knees with the back arched. This widens the pelvic outlet and facilitates delivery. This involves extended labour and is usually a hectic and cumbersome procedure leading to other maternal complications.
  • Posterior Axilla Sling Traction (PAST) This technique involves the delivery of the posterior foetal arm through an incision in the uterus. The hand which is freed is pulled through the vagina by another assistant.
  • General Anaesthesia  Labour suppressing agents such as terbutaline, nitroglycerin, or uterine-relaxing general anaesthesia may be administered later on followed by one of the manoeuvers mentioned above.
  • Zavanelli Manoeuvre – It involves an emergency caesarean operation. Initially, the infant’s head is rotated to the occiput front position and then rotated by using constant firm pressure, simultaneously pushing the head back into the vagina. This is followed by a caesarean immediately. Tocolytic agents (medicines that suppress labour) such as terbutaline, nitroglycerin, or uterine-relaxing general anaesthesia may be administered to facilitate this process.
  • Abdominal Surgery With an Incision in the Uterus  Here, general anaesthesia is usually followed by a caesarean incision. Later, the surgeon rotates the infant trans-abdominally through the hysterectomy incision (incision in the uterus), allowing the shoulders to rotate (similar to the Woods Corkscrew manoeuvre). The baby is then extracted through the vagina by another physician.
  • Transabdominal Shoulder Rotation (Abdominal rescue) An incision is made in the abdomen, to access and manually rotate the foetus’ stuck shoulders until the foetus can complete a vaginal delivery.
  • Symphysiotomy  In this procedure, the cartilage of the pubic symphysis is surgically divided. This widens the pelvis and facilitates delivery. This procedure is used when all other options have been ruled out.

Are There Any Measures to Prevent Shoulder Dystocia?

Here are a few ways to try and prevent the occurrence of shoulder dystocia:

  • Tracking foetal positioning and encouraging the baby to settle in the right position.
  • Performing exercises which flex and widen the pelvis.
  • Choosing mid-wives or doctors who encourage undisturbed birth.
  • Evaluating risk factors and proper management of risk factors in a mother can also help prevent maternal complications related to shoulder dystocia.

Recovery of Mother and Baby After Birth (Post-treatment Measures)

No special measures are required after the infant is born with a natural birth after shoulder dystocia. But, if signs of brachial plexus injury are noticed, it requires special monitoring in the neonatal section.

Another complication to watch out for is Erb’s palsy, which means a numb and paralysed arm. This usually gets better in hours or days, but if prolonged, the infant may have to undergo physiotherapy.

The mother may undergo severe trauma due to the physical damage that she underwent during delivery, especially severe haemorrhage, and other emotional agonies, including shock, guilt, depression, or even anger.

Many efforts have been put in by obstetricians to foresee or prevent the condition of shoulder dystocia in an infant, such as using ultrasound and various other tests to predict macrosomic infants. Multiple strategies have also been proposed to reduce infant complications such as brachial plexus injury by performing a prophylactic caesarean section. Many potential medical aids and medicines have also been applied to reduce the risk and to promote safe vaginal delivery.

The HELPERR manoeuvre is widely established and performed to treat shoulder dystocia and associated complications. When all these techniques fail, last resort techniques are established to prevent foetal death. The internal rotation manoeuvre help in manipulating the foetus, to escape the slumped shoulders of the foetus, and incline the foetus at such an angle that promotes a smooth vaginal delivery.

Consequently, with time and by application of these modern methods, the foetal death rate has declined. However, it is still tricky to completely eliminate infant complications like brachial plexus injury, Erb’s palsy, etc. Many researchers are conducting studies to combat this problem and complications associated with it.

Also Read: Back Labour – Reasons, Symptoms & Treatment

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