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What is Brachial Plexus Paralysis?

By Sarah Sullins
Updated May 17, 2024
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Brachial plexus paralysis, also commonly called brachial plexus palsy or Erb’s palsy, is a paralysis that is often seen in newborn children when the birthing process was difficult. It affects the brachial plexus nerves that control the muscles in the arms and shoulders. These nerves are connected between the spine, arm, hand, and shoulder. It may also be seen in victims of trauma or persons who have tumors in this area. Genetics may play a role in the damage of these specific nerves as well.

Injuries that cause brachial plesux paralysis typically occur four different ways. First, and most common, is neuropraxia and is when the nerves have been stretched but no tearing has occurred. The second, neuroma, is when a torn nerve has attempted to heal but scar tissue has gotten in the way. A third type, known as a rupture, is when the nerve is torn in an area other than the spine. Avulsion, the fourth type, is the most damaging and occurs when the nerve becomes torn at the spine.

The majority of the time, only the arm and the shoulder are affected by damage to the brachial plexus nerves. In rare circumstances, though, a person may be unable to use his hand. This is known as Klumpke’s Palsy, and is thought of as the lower type of brachial plexus paralysis. This type of injury, along with an injury to both the upper and lower nerves, may not heal as quickly and easily as an injury to just the upper nerves of the brachial plexus.

The symptoms of brachial plexus paralysis generally include weakness in or an inability to move the affected arm, a burning sensation, and pain. Damaged nerves may cause numbness in the extremity as well. Many times, a person that has suffered a fall, been in a car accident, or experienced some other trauma will notice these symptoms quickly. A visit to the doctor for a complete medical evaluation is needed if a person has symptoms of damaged brachial plexus nerves.

Treatment for brachial plexus paralysis will differ with each case. If the injuries to the nerves is not severe, they may be left alone to heal by themselves. Surgery may be required for nerves that are more severely damaged. Several options are available for people with brachial plexus paralysis, such as nerve grafts, muscle transfers, nerve transfers, and neurolysis. Exercise may also be used to help keep joints loose and muscles working.

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