Functional recovery is disappointing after surgical repair of nerves that are injured far from their target organs and/or after delayed repair. In the former case, a nerve transfer that transects a distal nerve fascicle to innervate denervated targets is one strategy to promote nerve regeneration and functional recovery. An alternate strategy tested in this study is to perform an end-to-side neurorrhaphy to “babysit” (protect) the denervated distal nerve stump at the time of nerve repair and reduce the deleterious effect of chronic denervation on nerve regeneration.
In the hindlimbs of Sprague-Dawley rats, the common peroneal (CP) nerve was transected unilaterally and the distal CP nerve stump inserted through a perineurial window into the intact tibial (TIB) nerve, i.e., CP-TIB end-to-side neurorrhaphy. In the first experiment, TIB nerve motoneurons that had regenerated and/or sprouted axons into the CP nerve within 3 months were stimulated to elicit contractions, and thereafter, identified with retrograde dyes for counting. In the second experiment, the intact TIB nerve was transected and cross-sutured to a 3-month chronically denervated distal CP nerve stump that had either been “protected” by ingrown TIB nerves after CP-TIB neurorrhaphy or remained chronically denervated. Thereafter, the number of retrogradely labeled TIB nerve motoneurons that had regenerated their nerves within 3 months were counted and reinnervated tibialis anterior (TA) muscles weighed.
A mean (± SE) of 231 ± 83 TIB nerve motoneurons grew into the end-to-side CP distal nerve stump with corresponding ankle flexion; 32% regenerated their axons and 24% sprouted axons from the intact TIB nerve, eliciting ankle flexor-extensor co-contraction. In the second experiment, after a 3-month period of TIB nerve regeneration, significantly more TIB motoneurons regenerated their axons into “protected” than “unprotected” CP distal nerve stumps within 3 months (mean 332 ± 43.6 vs 235 ± 39.3 motoneurons) with corresponding and significantly higher numbers of regenerated nerve fibers, resulting in significantly better recovery of reinnervated TA muscle weight.
These experiments in rats demonstrated that delayed nerve repair is more effective when the deleterious effects of chronic denervation of the distal nerve stump are reduced by protecting the nerve stump with ingrowing nerve fibers across an end-to-side insertion of the distal nerve stump into a neighboring intact nerve. Such an end-to-side neurorrhaphy may be invaluable as a means of preventing the atrophy of distal nerve stumps and target organs after chronic denervation, which allows for effective reinnervation of the protected distal nerve stumps and target organs over distance and time.