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Brachial Plexus Injury

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What Is a Brachial Plexus Injury?

The brachial plexus is the network of nerves that sends signals from your spine to your:

  • Shoulders
  • Arms
  • Hands

An injury to the brachial plexus stretches or compresses these nerves.

In severe cases, trauma or impact can completely tear the nerves away from the spinal cord, leaving your arm paralyzed.

Brachial plexus injury causes and risk factors

Contact sports are the most common cause of minor brachial plexus injuries. Newborn babies can also sustain brachial plexus injuries during childbirth.

Other medical conditions, including tumors and inflammation, can also affect the brachial plexus.

Major trauma or impact — such as a motorcycle or car crash — can cause more severe or traumatic brachial plexus injuries.

Brachial Plexus Injury Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of a brachial plexus injury can vary from person to person, depending on the severity and location of the injury.

Most often, brachial plexus injuries affect only one arm.

Minor brachial plexus injury symptoms

People often sustain minor brachial plexus injuries while playing contact sports — such as football, hockey, or wrestling.

Also called burners or stingers, this type of injury involves stretching or compressing the nerves of the brachial plexus.

It can cause symptoms like:

  • The feeling of an electric shock or burning sensation shooting down your arm.
  • Numbness and weakness in your arm.

While these symptoms last for a few minutes in most cases, some may find that they linger for a few days.

Severe brachial plexus injury symptoms

Car or motorcycle accidents — or other high-impact injuries — may tear or rupture the nerves of the brachial plexus.

In serious cases, the impact can actually tear the nerve root away from the spinal cord. This is a condition known as an avulsion.

Traumatic brachial plexus injury symptoms include:

  • Weakness or inability to use muscles in your hand, arm, or shoulder.
  • Lack of movement or feeling in the arm, including the shoulder and hand.
  • Severe pain.

When to see a doctor for a brachial plexus injury

Brachial plexus injuries can cause permanent weakness or disability.

Even if your injury appears to be minor, see a doctor right away if you have:

  • Recurring burners and stingers.
  • Weakness in your hand or arm.
  • Weakness in any part of the arm after an injury.
  • Paralysis of the upper arm or shoulder.
  • Neck pain.
  • Any of the above symptoms in both arms.

Brachial plexus injury diagnosis

It's vital to have a doctor diagnose and treat your brachial plexus within six months of the injury. If you delay, treatment may not be 100 percent effective.

After an exam, your doctor may order tests to determine the location and severity of your injury.

Tests to help diagnose the severity of a brachial plexus injury may include one or more of the following:

  • Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scans
  • Myelography
  • Angiogram 

Learn more about diagnostic tests for brachial plexus injuries

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Brachial Plexus Injury Treatment and Surgery

Nonsurgical brachial plexus injury treatment

For minor brachial plexus injuries, stretched nerves often recover with rest alone. However, your doctor may order physical therapy.

Brachial plexus therapy

Physical therapy for minor brachial plexus injuries will help:

  • Ensure your joints and muscles are working right.
  • Increase your range of motion.
  • Prevent stiffness in the joints.

If severe scar tissue forms, often you will need surgery to remove it and restore nerve function.

Brachial plexus surgery

If you need surgery for your brachial plexus injury repair, you should have it within six months of the injury to ensure the best recovery possible.

Brachial plexus surgical options include:

  • Nerve graft
  • Nerve transfer
  • Muscle transfer