Adult upper trunk brachial plexus injuries result in significant disability. Several surgical treatment strategies exist, including nerve grafting, nerve transfers, and a combination of both approaches. However, no existing data clearly indicate the most successful strategy for restoring elbow flexion and shoulder abduction in these patients. The authors reviewed the literature to compare outcomes of the three surgical repair techniques listed above to determine the optimal approach to traumatic injury to the upper brachial plexus in adults.
Both PubMed and EMBASE databases were searched for English-language articles containing the MeSH topic “brachial plexus” in conjunction with the word “injury” or “trauma” in the title and “surgery” or “repair” as a MeSH subheading or in the title, excluding pediatric articles and those articles limited to avulsions. The search was also limited to articles published after 1990 and containing at least 10 operated cases involving upper brachial plexus injuries. The search was supplemented with articles obtained through the “Related Articles” feature on PubMed and the bibliographies of selected publications. From the articles was collected information on the operation performed, number of operated cases, mean subject ages, sex distribution, interval between injury and surgery, source of nerve transfers, mean duration of follow-up, year of publication, and percentage of operative success in terms of elbow flexion and shoulder abduction of the injured limb. The recovery of elbow flexion and shoulder abduction was separately analyzed. A subanalysis was also performed to assess the recovery of elbow flexion following various neurotization techniques.
As regards the restoration of elbow flexion, nerve grafting led to significantly better outcomes than either nerve transfer or the combined techniques (F = 4.71, p = 0.0097). However, separating the Oberlin procedure from other neurotization techniques revealed that the former was significantly more successful (F = 82.82, p < 0.001). Moreover, in comparing the Oberlin procedure to nerve grafting or combined procedures, again the former was significantly more successful than either of the latter two approaches (F = 53.14; p < 0.001). In the restoration of shoulder abduction, nerve transfer was significantly more successful than the combined procedure (p = 0.046), which in turn was significantly better than nerve grafting procedures (F = 5.53, p = 0.0044).
According to data in this study, in upper trunk brachial plexus injuries in adults, the Oberlin procedure and nerve transfers are the more successful approaches to restore elbow flexion and shoulder abduction, respectively, compared with nerve grafting or combined techniques. A prospective, randomized controlled trial would be necessary to fully elucidate differences in outcome among the various surgical approaches.