What is a Brachial Plexus Injury?

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  • Written By: Dee S.
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 January 2020
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A brachial plexus injury occurs when there is damage to the nerves that sends signals from the spinal cord to the hand, arm, and shoulder. The injury usually occurs when the nerves are overextended, stretched, or torn. In general, such circumstances happen when the head and neck area is aggressively pushed away from the shoulder, such as with high-contact sports, car or boat accidents, complications during birth, and other traumatic events. Although a brachial plexus injury can repair itself, major injuries can mandate surgery.

Depending on how severe the injury was, the signs of a brachial plexus injury vary. Typically, only a single shoulder, arm, or hand is affected. If the injury is only slight, the symptoms can include a burning or shocking feeling that shoots down the arm or numbness in the arm. The sensation should only last briefly; however, some people may experience it for days at a time. For more serious brachial plexus injuries, the nerves may actually be torn. In those cases, the symptoms include the inability to control the muscles of the shoulder and the elbow, the inability to use the fingers, the inability to move the arm, the inability to feel the arm, and extreme pain.


There are several ways that medical doctors can diagnose whether a person suffers from a brachial plexus injury and how severe it is. Electromyography is a test using needle electrodes that are inserted into the muscles to show whether the nerves of a muscle are healthy. Nerve conduction studies may also be performed to stimulate the nerve with a patch electrode on the muscle area. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography (CT) myelography are other methods that allow doctors to visually see any nerve damage in the body.

If tests indicate that a person suffers from a brachial plexus injury, there are several kinds of surgeries that may be performed. Through a nerve graft, the damaged section of the brachial plexus can be replaced with healthy nerves taken from elsewhere in the body. If the nerve root is ripped from the spinal cord, doctors can take a nerve that is less essential to motor function and attach the damaged nerve in its place. Surgery should occur no more than six months after the injury occurs so that the muscles do not deteriorate from lack of use.

For individuals who do not want or need to have surgery for their brachial plexus injury, there are certain drugs that can be consumed to control the pain. In some cases, opiates are prescribed. In other cases, antidepressants are given to the patient. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation is sometimes performed to give a person pain relief by providing impulses to the pathways of the nerves.



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