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Nachiket Deshpande, Amro M. Stino, Brandon W. Smith, Ann A. Little, Lynda J. S. Yang, Paul Park, and Yamaan S. Saadeh


Postoperative C5 palsy (C5P) is a well-recognized and often-delayed complication of cervical spine surgery. Most patients recover within 6 months of onset, but the prognosis of severe cases is poor. The clinical significance and natural history of mild versus severe C5P appear to differ substantially, but palsy severity and recovery have been poorly characterized in the literature.


Owing to the varying prognoses and expanding treatment options such as nerve transfer surgery to reconstruct the C5 myotome, this systematic review attempted to describe how C5P severity is classified and how C5P and its recovery are defined, with the aim of proposing a postoperative C5P scale to support clinical decision-making. PubMed was searched for articles in English published since 2000 that offer a clear definition of postoperative C5P or its recovery. Only articles reporting exclusively on C5 palsy for patients undergoing surgery for degenerative disease were included. A single reviewer screened titles and abstracts and reviewed the full text of relevant articles, with consultation as needed from a second reviewer. Data collected included postoperative C5P definitions, classification of C5P severity, and definition and/or classification of C5P recovery. Qualitative analysis was performed.


Full-text reviews were conducted of 98 of 272 articles identified and screened, and 43 met the inclusion criteria. Postoperative C5P was most commonly defined as a reduction in deltoid muscle strength by ≥ 1 grade using manual muscle testing (MMT), with potential biceps involvement also noted by some studies. The few studies that stratified C5P on the basis of severity unanimously characterized severe C5P as MMT grade ≤ 2. Nine studies reported on C5P recovery. Deltoid muscle strength improvement of MMT grade 5 commonly defined complete recovery, with no MMT improvement considered partial recovery.


This review identified clear discrepancies in the definitions of C5P and its recovery, leading to heterogeneity in its evaluation and management. With the emergence of therapeutic procedures for severe C5P, standardization of the definitions of C5P and its recovery is critical. The authors propose MMT grades of 4, 3, and ≤ 2 to classify C5P as mild, moderate, and severe, respectively, and grades of 5, 4, and 3 to classify recovery as complete, sufficient, and useful, respectively.