A brachial plexus injury (BPI), also known as brachial plexus lesion, is an injury to the brachial plexus, the network of nerves that conducts signals from the spinal cord to the shoulder, arm and hand. These nerves originate in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth cervical (C5–C8), and first thoracic (T1) spinal nerves, and innervate the muscles and skin of the chest, shoulder, arm and hand.
Brachial plexus injuries can occur as a result of shoulder trauma, tumours, or inflammation. The rare Parsonage-Turner Syndrome causes brachial plexus inflammation without obvious injury, but with nevertheless disabling symptoms. But in general, brachial plexus injury can be classified as either traumatic or obstetric. Obstetric injuries may occur from mechanical injury involving shoulder dystocia during difficult childbirth. Traumatic injury may arise from several causes. “The brachial plexus may be injured by falls from a height on to the side of the head and shoulder, whereby the nerves of the plexus are violently stretched….The brachial plexus may also be injured by direct violence or gunshot wounds, by violent traction on the arm, or by efforts at reducing a dislocation of the shoulder joint”.
Signs and symptoms
Signs and symptoms may include a limp or paralyzed arm, lack of muscle control in the arm, hand, or wrist, and lack of feeling or sensation in the arm or hand. Although several mechanisms account for brachial plexus injuries, the most common is nerve compression or stretch. Infants, in particular, may suffer brachial plexus injuries during delivery and these present with typical patterns of weakness, depending on which portion of the brachial plexus is involved. The most severe form of injury is nerve root avulsion, which usually accompanies high-velocity impacts that commonly occur during motor-vehicle collisions or bicycle accidents.
Based on the location of the nerve damage, brachial plexus injuries can affect part of or the entire arm. For example, musculocutaneous nerve damage weakens elbow flexors, median nerve damage causes proximal forearm pain, and paralysis of the ulnar nerve causes weak grip and finger numbness. In some cases, these injuries can cause total and irreversible paralysis. In less severe cases, these injuries limit use of these limbs and cause pain.
The cardinal signs of brachial plexus injury then, are weakness in the arm, diminished reflexes, and corresponding sensory deficits.
Erb’s palsy. “The position of the limb, under such conditions, is characteristic: the arm hangs by the side and is rotated medially; the forearm is extended and pronated. The arm cannot be raised from the side; all power of flexion of the elbow is lost, as is also supination of the forearm”.
In Klumpke’s paralysis, a form of paralysis involving the muscles of the forearm and hand, a characteristic sign is the clawed hand, due to loss of function of the ulnar nerve and the intrinsic muscles of the hand it supplies.
In most cases the nerve roots are stretched or torn from their origin, since the meningeal covering of a nerve root is thinner than the sheath enclosing the nerve. The epineurium of the nerve is contiguous with the dura mater, providing extra support to the nerve.
Brachial plexus lesions typically result from excessive stretching; from rupture injury where the nerve is torn but not at the spinal cord; or from avulsion injuries, where the nerve is torn from its attachment at the spinal cord. A bony fragment, pseudoaneurysm, hematoma, or callus formation of fractured clavcile can also put pressure on the injured nerve, disrupting innervation of the muscles. A trauma directly on the shoulder and neck region can crush the brachial plexus between the clavicle and the first rib.
Although injuries can occur at any time, many brachial plexus injuries happen during birth: the baby’s shoulders may become impacted during the birth process causing the brachial plexus nerves to stretch or tear. Obstetric injuries may occur from mechanical injury involving shoulder dystocia during difficult childbirth, the most common of which result from injurious stretching of the child’s brachial plexus during birth, most often during vaginal birth, but occasionally Caesarean section. The excessive stretch results in incomplete sensory and/or motor function of the injured nerve.
Injuries to the brachial plexus result from excessive stretching or tearing of the C5-T1 nerve fibers. These injuries can be located in front of or behind the clavicle, nerve disruptions, or root avulsions from the spinal cord. These injuries are diagnosed based on clinical exams, axon reflex testing, and electrophysiological testing. Brachial plexus injuries require quick treatment in order for the patient to make a full functional recovery (Tung, 2003). These types of injuries are most common in young adult males.
Traumatic brachial plexus injuries may arise from several causes, including sports, high-velocity motor vehicle accidents, especially in motorcyclists, but also all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) and other accidents. Injury from a direct blow to the lateral side of the scapula is also possible. The severity of nerve injuries may vary from a mild stretch to the nerve root tearing away from the spinal cord (avulsion). “The brachial plexus may be injured by falls from a height on to the side of the head and shoulder, whereby the nerves of the plexus are violently stretched… The brachial plexus may also be injured by direct violence or gunshot wounds, by violent traction on the arm, or by efforts at reducing a dislocation of the shoulder joint”.
Brachial plexus lesions can be divided into three types:
An upper brachial plexus lesion, which occurs from excessive lateral neck flexion away from the shoulder. Most commonly, forceps delivery or falling on the neck at an angle causes upper plexus lesions leading to Erb’s palsy. This type of injury produces a very characteristic sign called Waiter’s tip deformity due to loss of the lateral rotators of the shoulder, arm flexors, and hand extensor muscles.
Less frequently, the whole brachial plexus lesion occurs;
most infrequently, sudden upward pulling on an abducted arm (as when someone breaks a fall by grasping a tree branch) produces a lower brachial plexus lesion, in which the eighth cervical (C8) and first thoracic (T1) nerves are injured “either before or after they have joined to form the lower trunk. The subsequent paralysis affects, principally, the intrinsic muscles of the hand and the flexors of the wrist and fingers”. This results in a form of paralysis known as Klumpke’s paralysis.
Treatment for brachial plexus injuries includes orthosis/splinting, occupational or physical therapy and, in some cases, surgery. Some brachial plexus injuries may heal without treatment. Many infants improve or recover within 6 months, but those that do not, have a very poor outlook and will need further surgery to try to compensate for the nerve deficits. The ability to bend the elbow (biceps function) by the third month of life is considered an indicator of probable recovery, with additional upward movement of the wrist, as well as straightening of thumb and fingers an even stronger indicator of excellent spontaneous improvement. Gentle range of motion exercises performed by parents, accompanied by repeated examinations by a physician, may be all that is necessary for patients with strong indicators of recovery.
The exercises mentioned above can be done to help rehabilitate from mild cases of the injury. However, in more serious brachial plexus injuries surgical interventions can be used. Function can be restored by nerve repairs, nerve replacements, and surgery to remove tumors causing the injury. Another crucial factor to note is that psychological problems can hinder the rehabilitation process due to a lack of motivation from the patient. On top of promoting a lifetime process of physical healing, it is important to not overlook the psychological well-being of a patient. This is due to the possibility of depression or complications with head injuries.
There are many treatments to facilitate the process of recovery in people who have brachial plexus injuries. Improvements occur slowly and the rehabilitation process can take up to many years. Many factors should be considered when estimating recovery time, such as initial diagnosis of the injury, severity of the injury, and type of treatments used. Some forms of treatment include nerve grafts, medication, surgical decompression, nerve transfer, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.
Physical and occupational therapy is important when dealing with a brachial plexus injuries. One of the main goals of rehabilitation is to prevent muscle atrophy until the nerves regain function. Electrical stimulation is an effective treatment to help patients reach this fundamental goal. Exercises that involve shoulder extension, flexion, elevation, depression, abduction and adduction facilitate healing by engaging the nerves in the damaged sites as well as improve muscle function. Stretching is done on a daily basis to improve or maintain range of motion. Stretching is important in order to rehabilitate since it increases the blood flow to the injury as well as facilitates nerves in functioning properly.
A study has also shown that a sensory-motor deficit in the upper limbs after a brachial plexus injury can affect the corporal balance in the vertical positioning. Examined patients had a lower score in the Berg balance scale, a greater difficulty in maintaining in the unipodal stance during one minute and leaned the body weight distribution to the side affected by the lesion. Patients also exhibited a greater variability in the postural oscillation, evaluated by the directional stability index. The results alert the clinical community about the necessity to prevent and treat secondary effects of this condition.