Brachial plexus dysfunction (brachial plexopathy) is a form of peripheral neuropathy. It occurs when there is damage to the brachial plexus, an area on each side of the neck where nerve roots from the spinal cord split into each arm's nerves.
Damage to the brachial plexus is usually related to direct injury to the nerve, stretching injuries (including birth trauma), pressure from tumors in the area (especially from lung tumors), or damage that results from radiation therapy.
Brachial plexus dysfunction may also be associated with:
Birth defects that put pressure on the neck area
Exposure to toxins, chemicals, or drugs
General anesthesia, used during surgery
Inflammatory conditions, such as those due to a virus or immune system problem
An exam of the arm, hand and wrist can reveal a problem with the nerves of the brachial plexus. Signs may include:
Deformity of the arm or hand
Difficulty moving the shoulder, arm, hand, or fingers
Diminished arm reflexes
Wasting of the muscles
Weakness of hand flexing
A detailed history may help determine the cause of the brachial plexopathy. Age and gender are important, because some brachial plexus problems are more common in certain groups. For example, young men more often have inflammatory or post-viral brachial plexus disease called Parsonage Turner syndrome.
Tests that may be done to diagnose this condition may include:
MRI of the head, neck, and shoulder
Nerve conduction tests
Nerve biopsy (rarely needed)
Treatment is aimed at correcting the underlying cause and allowing you to use your hand and arm as much as possible. In some cases, no treatment is required and recovery happens on its own.
Over-the-counter or prescription pain medicines may be needed to control pain. Anticonvulsants (phenytoin, carbamazepine, gabapentin, and pregabalin), tricyclic antidepressants (amitriptyline and nortriptyline), or other medicines (duloxetine) may be prescribed. Use the recommended dose to avoid side effects.
Physical therapy may be recommended for some people to help maintain muscle strength.
Orthopedic assistance may increase your ability to use your hand and arm. Such therapy may involve braces, splints, or other appliances.
Vocational counseling, occupational therapy, occupational changes, job retraining, or other measures may be recommended.
Some people with brachial plexopathy may benefit from local nerve blocks. Surgery may be needed if nerve compression is the cause of the symptoms.
If other nerves are also affected, an underlying medical problem that can affect nerves should be considered. Medical conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease can damage nerves. In these cases, treatment is also directed at the underlying medical condition.
The likely outcome depends on the cause. A good recovery is possible if the cause is identified and properly treated. In some cases, there may be a partial or complete loss of movement or sensation. Nerve pain may be severe and may persist for a long time.
Complications may include:
Deformity of the hand or arm, mild to severe, which can lead to contractures
Partial or complete loss of sensation in the arm, hand, or fingers
Recurrent or unnoticed injury to the hand or arm due to diminished sensation
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you experience pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the shoulder, arm, or hand.
Prevention is varied, depending on the cause.
Chad DA. Disorders of nerve roots and plexuses. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 75.
Ensrud E, King JC. Plexopathy--brachial. In: Frontera WR, Silver JK, Rizzo TD, eds. Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2008:chap 134.
Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Department of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.