The brachial plexus is the network of nerves that sends signals from the spinal cord to your shoulders, arms, and hands. You have a brachial plexus on each side of your body, and each one contains many nerves.
When healthy, the brachial plexus controls muscles and allows for normal movement and feeling in your arms, hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders.
But those nerves can become stretched, compressed, or torn. Injuries to the brachial plexus can limit function in your arms and can cause paralysis in severe cases.
Learn more about how brachial plexus injuries occur and what treatment is possible.
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Brachial Plexus Injury Causes
Brachial plexus injuries usually happen when your arm gets stretched or pulled, or if pressure is put on the nerves. This can happen during childbirth if the baby’s shoulder gets stuck in the birth canal.
Other causes of brachial plexus injuries include:
- Car or motorcycle accidents
- Sports injuries
Brachial plexus injuries can range from minor to severe.
- A more minor brachial plexus injury is a stretch (neuropraxia),which occurs when the nerve is mildly stretched. Also known as burners or stingers, these injuries often can heal on their own or require minor treatment.
- More serious stretches, called ruptures, involve a partial or full tear of the nerve. This type of injury can sometimes be repaired with surgery.
- The most severe injury is an avulsion, which occurs when the root of the injured nerve is torn from the spinal cord. This injury may cause permanent damage.
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Brachial Plexus Injury Symptoms
Symptoms depend on the severity of the injury. A brachial plexus injury can affect function of the arms, hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Common symptoms include:
- A burning or electric shock feeling
- Weakness or numbness
- Loss of sensation
- Loss of motion or paralysis
To determine the severity of your injury, doctors use a wide variety of tests,
including MRIs, CT scans, nerve studies, and others.
Treatment for Brachial Plexus Injuries
Because brachial plexus injuries can cause permanent damage, it’s important to see a doctor about treatment. Even minor injuries can cause chronic symptoms. You should see a doctor within 6 months of a brachial plexus injury for evaluation and treatment.
Minor injuries to the brachial plexus will heal on their own, with recovery taking place over weeks or months. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy to help you regain function.
For more severe injuries, surgery may be required. Surgeries for brachial plexus injuries include:
- Nerve repair: Reattaching a severed brachial plexus nerve.
- Nerve graft: Reconnecting the severed nerve with a piece of a healthy nerve taken from elsewhere in your body. The graft should help the damaged nerve regrow and help restore function.
- Nerve transfer: Doctors cut a healthy nerve from another part of the body and reattach it to your injured nerve. The transferred nerve can provide a signal to paralyzed muscles.
- Muscle transfer: Nerve repairs, grafts, or transfers may not help if surgery is delayed for too long after the injury. In that case, a muscle transfer can be used to restore function. It involves taking a muscle from another part of the body — along with its corresponding tendon, artery, vein, and nerve — and connecting it to the injured muscle.
Along with surgery, doctors may recommend physical therapy to help you regain function.
Even with surgery and physical therapy, it’s possible you may not regain the level of function you had before the injury. However, treatment can help you restore as much use as possible.
UPMC Orthopaedic Care provides diagnosis and treatment for a variety of injuries, including brachial plexus injuries. To request an appointment, call 1-866-987-6784 or fill out our online appointment form.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Brachial Plexus Injuries. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/brachial-plexus-injuries/
American Society for Surgery of the Hand, Brachial Plexus Injury. https://www.assh.org/handcare/condition/brachial-plexus-injury
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Brachial Plexus Injuries Information Page. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Brachial-Plexus-Injuries-Information-Page
Shelley S. Noland, MD; Allen T. Bishop, MD; Robert J. Spinner, MD; Alexander Y. Shin, MD, Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Adult Traumatic Brachial Plexus Injuries. https://journals.lww.com/jaaos/Fulltext/2019/10010/Adult_Traumatic_Brachial_Plexus_Injuries.1.aspx?casa_token=dlnqHQ7ysdEAAAAA:Fez8IJoUVuVJqw-ipgS7i_fUrSJAbL0PR_y3KlJUsdafwEyeTnmu1DQGkqTmfSOTn7n2t2RrK4qkELD_XwNj-9VZ
About UPMC Orthopaedic Care
As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, UPMC treats a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. Whether you have bone, muscle, or joint pain, we provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. As leaders in research and clinical trials with cutting-edge tools and techniques, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside appears on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the top hospitals in the country for orthopaedics.