Brachial Plexus Prognosis
Brachial plexus injuries are caused by damage to the nerves that control movement and provide sensation in the arms. Adults and children can be injured in this way through some type of trauma, but the most common cause of damage to the brachial plexus is a birth injury. A difficult delivery, breech birth, and other factors such as shoulder dystocia and the infant’s size, can cause the nerves to be stretched and damaged.
Injuries to the brachial plexus can cause symptoms that range from mild to severe and potentially, complications that are permanent. The prognosis for a brachial plexus injury strongly depends on the individual injury, its severity, as well as the timeliness and effectiveness of the treatment. Most infants will recover completely and never experience symptoms again, while a few may have lasting symptoms.
Brachial Plexus Injuries
The brachial plexus is the set of 5 major nerve branches that link the spinal cord to the small nerves that control shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands. These nerves are responsible for sensations and muscle movements in those areas. Newborns may have brachial plexus injuries because of how they came out of the womb. Any type of difficulty during delivery that causes the infant’s head, shoulder, or neck to be stretched or pulled can cause this damage. This stretching motion, if severe enough, can cause damage to the nerves from the spinal cord that run through the neck and down the arm.
Damage to the brachial plexus in most cases will be mild and cause minimal symptoms, while in other cases it may be severe. This may include tears and rips, or avulsion, which is when a nerve or multiple nerves are torn completely away from the spinal cord.
The dysfunction will vary depending on the nerve affected. Each of the five nerve bundles controls different parts of the arm, so symptoms may be experienced in the upper arm, lower arm, wrist, and hand. Symptoms of brachial plexus injury include loss of sensation, weakness, numbness, and partial or complete paralysis of muscles in any part of the arm.
The Importance of Early Treatment
Mild cases may not require any kind of treatment or may benefit from physical therapy. More severe injuries, on the other hand, may not heal without treatment. The most common approach for the treatment of injuries severe enough to cause tearing or avulsion is surgery to repair the damage. A donor nerve can be grafted onto the damaged portion of a brachial plexus nerve or used to reattach a nerve that separated from the spinal cord.
Recognizing the signs of brachial plexus injury and treating moderate to severe cases as soon as possible is important for giving a child the best chance of healing, of having minimal lasting symptoms, and of having the most favorable prognosis. If symptoms are mild, there may be no treatment beyond gentle physical therapy, and most infants will recover entirely by three to six months of age.
If surgery is needed, it should be done as early as possible, before the damage and its consequences become irreversible. By the age of three to six months, an infant may be evaluated for surgery, if necessary. This gives doctors a chance to see if the baby will heal naturally and avoid the need for surgery.
The prognosis for most babies born with brachial plexus injuries is good, but there is a potential for complications. One of these is the development of palsy. Depending on the severity of the injury, a child may experience weakness in the affected area, with partial or total paralysis, and varying degrees of loss of sensation in the arm, wrist, or hand. These complications are known as palsy and usually will disappear as the nerves heal naturally or with treatment. In some cases, however, the dysfunction may be permanent. A child may also end up with chronically tightened muscles in the affected arm, also known as contractures.
Prognosis for Mild Injuries
For mild brachial plexus injuries, the prognosis is overwhelmingly positive. An infant sustaining mild injuries to these nerves will likely experience a correspondingly mild form of brachial plexus palsy. The infant may not move one arm as much as the other or have a weakened grip in that hand. However, these symptoms will generally disappear by three to six months of age.
For many of these mildly-affected infants, no treatment is needed to have a positive outcome. Time is all it takes for the body to heal the injured nerves. Others may need a little bit of physical therapy, such as range of motion exercises or massage, to help promote movement and sensation and to speed the process of natural healing.
Prognosis for Moderate to Severe Injuries
The prognosis for moderate to severe injuries of the brachial plexus is not as good as for mild injuries but is still largely positive. A combination of surgery and follow-up physical therapy can greatly improve the resulting function. The prognosis for such cases is much better than it was in the past as surgical techniques for repairing nerves have improved.
Children who never fully recover from a brachial plexus injury may live with some form of palsy for the rest of their lives. This is the weakness, paralysis, and loss of sensation caused by nerve damage. Surgery and therapy can help alleviate the symptoms, but for severe injuries, no treatment is yet able to repair the nerve or completely eliminate the accompanying dysfunction. A child with permanent disabilities may need ongoing physical and occupational therapy, assistive devices, and possibly corrective surgery, but can otherwise live a long and healthy life.
If your child was born with a brachial plexus injury and has been given a poor prognosis, you may feel as if someone is to blame for the lifelong disability. Brachial plexus injuries during childbirth are often ascribed to doctor or hospital error and, if you consult with an experienced lawyer, you may be able to make a strong case. Compensation from a lawsuit can help your child continue to receive the treatment and assistive devices needed for healthy function.