Shoulder dystocia: the unpreventable obstetric emergency with empiric management guidelines

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2006 Sep;195(3):657-72. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2005.09.007. Epub 2006 Apr 21.


Objective: Much of our understanding and knowledge of shoulder dystocia has been blurred by inconsistent and scientific studies that are of limited scientific quality. In an evidence-based format, we sought to answer the following questions: (1) Is shoulder dystocia predictable? (2) Can shoulder dystocia be prevented? (3) When shoulder dystocia does occur, what maneuvers should be performed? and (4) What are the sequelae of shoulder dystocia?

Study design: Electronic databases, including PUBMED and the Cochrane Database, were searched using the key word "shoulder dystocia." We also performed a manual review of articles included in the bibliographies of these selected articles to further define articles for review. Only those articles published in the English language were eligible for inclusion.

Results: There is a significantly increased risk of shoulder dystocia as birth weight linearly increases. From a prospective point of view, however, prepregnancy and antepartum risk factors have exceedingly poor predictive value for the prediction of shoulder dystocia. Late pregnancy ultrasound likewise displays low sensitivity, decreasing accuracy with increasing birth weight, and an overall tendency to overestimate the birth weight. Induction of labor for suspected fetal macrosomia has not been shown to alter the incidence of shoulder dystocia among nondiabetic patients. The concept of prophylactic cesarean delivery as a means to prevent shoulder dystocia and therefore avoid brachial plexus injury has not been supported by either clinical or theoretic data. Although many maneuvers have been described for the successful alleviation of shoulder dystocia, there have been no randomized controlled trials or laboratory experiments that have directly compared these techniques. Despite the introduction of ancillary obstetric maneuvers, such as McRoberts maneuver and a generalized trend towards the avoidance of fundal pressure, it has been shown that the rate of shoulder-dystocia associated brachial plexus palsy has not decreased. The simple occurrence of a shoulder dystocia event before any iatrogenic intervention may be associated with brachial plexus injury.

Conclusion: For many years, long-standing opinions based solely on empiric reasoning have dictated our understanding of the detailed aspects of shoulder dystocia prevention and management. Despite its infrequent occurrence, all healthcare providers attending pregnancies must be prepared to handle vaginal deliveries complicated by shoulder dystocia.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Birth Injuries / epidemiology
  • Birth Injuries / prevention & control*
  • Birth Injuries / therapy
  • Birth Weight
  • Brachial Plexus Neuropathies / epidemiology
  • Cesarean Section
  • Dystocia / therapy*
  • Emergency Medical Services
  • Episiotomy
  • Female
  • Fetal Macrosomia / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Labor, Induced
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy in Diabetics / epidemiology
  • Recurrence
  • Risk Factors
  • Shoulder Injuries*