Brachial Plexus Palsy Center

Neurosurgical Treatment       Special Considerations
      Indications for Neurosurgical Repair of Brachial Plexus
      Preoperative Evaluations
      Potential Complications
      Surgical Procedures
      Timing for Functional Improvement

Special Considerations

It is important to remember that in the great majority of patients, although surgical repair will result in improved function of the arm, it will not restore complete muscle strength. Because of this, and the fact that many patients will improve to varying degrees without surgery, great care is needed when selecting patients for surgical treatment.

Optimal timing for surgical intervention depends on the severity of the brachial plexus injury. For example, infants with suspected nerve root avulsion or ruptured brachial plexus require early surgical exploration. On the other hand, infants with less extensive injury will show clinical improvement during the first 3-6 months and thus require more time before a decision can be made regarding the need for surgery.

In a given patient, direct surgical repair of the brachial plexus depends on the location and extent of the nerve injury. Reconstruction using nerve grafts is carried out in a number of ways, and the surgeon should make decisions based on his/her experience.

A unique problem in brachial plexus surgery in infants is that no neurophysiology test allows reliable identification of the portion of the brachial plexus that requires resection and repair with nerve grafting. We base our decision on the result of direct electrical stimulation of the brachial plexus, the severity of neuromas seen at the time of exploration, and infant's muscle weakness prior to surgery.

Indications for Neurosurgical Repair of Brachial Plexus

The complete absence of improvement results from a severe injury, including nerve root avulsion or rupture of the brachial plexus. These infants would require early brachial plexus repair surgery.

Hornerís syndrome includes droopy eye and small pupil; the presence of this sign indicates injury to the lower brachial plexus (C8-T1) close to the spinal cord; it can be associated with avulsion of the nerve roots. Pseudomeningocele is a finding on MRI scan which suggests possible avulsion of the particular nerve root.

If infant shows some contraction in muscles at the age of 2-3 months, we recommend continuous physical therapy until 4-6 months.


Preoperative Evaluations

Muscle strength in the arm and hand is measured and documented by physicians and therapists. Changes in muscle strength are noted after surgery and in follow-up examinations.

Chest x-ray is taken primarily to check for diaphragm paralysis due to phrenic nerve injury.
Cervical spine MRI is obtained to determine the presence of pseudomeningocele (pocket of cerebrospinal fluid) along the spinal nerve root, which may indicate detachment of the nerve root from the spinal cord.

MRI showing pseudomeningocele

Electromyography (EMG) is a test done after 2 months of age to determine the status of
innervation of muscles. The test provides information about the distribution and severity of the brachial plexus injury and associated nerve root avulsion. It can also be used for postoperative follow-up of patients. A major drawback is that it is a qualitative rather than a quantitative analysis of innervation.

Videotape is used prior to surgery, at 6 months after surgery, and at subsequent follow-up visits to document the clinical course of each patient.

Potential Complications

Injury to the phrenic nerve, which is adjacent to the upper trunk of the brachial plexus, can cause diaphragm paralysis. Reconnecting the nerve allows the paralysis to eventually resolve.

Injury to the lung will cause pneumothorax. Injury to the subclavian artery and vein is also possible.

Wound infection can occur around the incisions in the neck or the legs.

Additional injury to the brachial plexus is possible but can be easily avoided. It should be noted, however, that a decrease in muscle strength can follow reconstruction of the brachial plexus with nerve grafts. This occurs because a functioning nerve root is sometimes cut and connected to the other part of the brachial plexus using nerve grafts. The muscle strength will most likely return with time, and the risk of such complications is very small.

Surgical Procedures

Three basic operative procedures are performed:

  1. resection of severely injured part of the brachial plexus
  2. reconstruction of brachial plexus with grafts
  3. neurolysis (removal of scar tissue surrounding the injured nerve).

We do not perform neurolysis alone. All of our patients will need neurolysis, and removal of injured parts of brachial plexus, and reconstruction of the brachial plexus with placement of nerve grafts. Nerve grafts are harvested from the calf on one side or both sides.

A skin incision is made along the neck and sometimes extended to the shoulder. When a nerve graft procedure is needed, additional incisions are made on the posterior aspect of one or two legs in order to harvest the
sural nerve for nerve grafts.

Operative photograph showing
brachial plexus and neuroma

For upper brachial plexus injury (Erb's palsy), the brachial plexus above the clavicle is exposed. For total brachial plexus injury, the entire brachial plexus is exposed above and below the clavicle. Neuromas are almost invariably present, and additional pathology such as scar tissue surrounding the brachial plexus, avulsed nerve root, and ruptured trunk of the brachial plexus may also be present.

Once the abnormal brachial plexus has been exposed, muscle contractions in response to direct electrical stimulation of the nerve root and the other part of the brachial plexus are examined. Nerve action potential study is impossible in infants because of the small operative field and has not been validated for brachial plexus surgery in infants.

In any event, no or minimal muscle contraction during electrical stimulation to a given nerve root is a strong indication for nerve grafting procedure. On the other hand, good muscle contraction during electrical stimulation can be produced by only a small number of intact axons, which are insufficient for functional recovery without nerve grafts.

Thus, we take into account the extent of a neuroma and an infant's preoperative muscle strength when making decisions about the need for nerve grafts. In general, we prefer resection of the neuroma combined with nerve grafting, especially for upper and middle trunk injuries. But nerve graft for the lower trunk injury is done only when the infant has no muscle contraction in the wrist and hand preoperatively or has avulsed nerve roots. Otherwise, we tend to do neurolysis of the lower trunk. This conservative approach is based on the fact that the functional outcome of nerve grafting of the lower trunk is not as good as on the upper and middle trunk.

Operative photograph of neurolysis

The spinal nerve root, trunk (black arrow), and other parts of the brachial plexus most often are surrounded by nonneural scar tissue (blue arrow). This is removed to free up the brachial plexus. When the neuroma is not extensive, the infant has some muscle strength, and electrical stimulation elicits strong muscle contraction, neurolysis alone is performed. Also, neurolysis is a part of the nerve grafting procedure. In other words, neurolysis needs to be done before nerve grafts are placed.

Operative photograph of nerve grafting in the upper trunk

Reconstruction of the brachial plexus with nerve graft can produce gratifying results, particularly in infants with upper trunk injury. This operative photograph illustrates a form of nerve grafts used for brachial plexus surgery. A number of variations of nerve grafting procedures are utilized, depending on the location and extent of brachial plexus injury. It is important to note that nerve grafting offers the best chance for infants whose injury is extensive and for whom the probability of spontaneous recovery is minimal.

Timing for Functional Improvement

Improvement in deltoid and biceps muscle strength is detectable around 6 months after surgery, although some infants show improvements sooner. Muscle strength will increase gradually over the next 18 months. Improvement of the forearm and hand muscles is detectable around 8 months and continues for 3-4 years.


Outcomes reported in the literature

Our own study described outcomes in the first series of patients who underwent brachial plexus surgery at the St. Louis Children's Hospital.

Our initial experience is encouraging, and we conduct ongoing analysis of the outcomes of surgery at our Center.

Another study of 241 children who underwent repair of brachial plexus for birth injury reported the following results: