The use of nerve transfers versus nerve grafting for neonatal brachial plexus palsy (NBPP) remains controversial. In adult brachial plexus injury, transfer of an ulnar fascicle to the biceps branch of the musculocutaneous nerve (Oberlin transfer) is reportedly superior to nerve grafting for restoration of elbow flexion. In pediatric patients with NBPP, recovery of elbow flexion and forearm supination is an indicator of resolved NBPP. Currently, limited evidence exists of outcomes for flexion and supination when comparing nerve transfer and nerve grafting for NBPP. Therefore, the authors compared 1-year postoperative outcomes for infants with NBPP who underwent Oberlin transfer versus nerve grafting.
This retrospective cohort study reviewed patients with NBPP who underwent Oberlin transfer (n = 19) and nerve grafting (n = 31) at a single institution between 2005 and 2015. A single surgeon conducted intraoperative exploration of the brachial plexus and determined the surgical nerve reconstruction strategy undertaken. Active range of motion was evaluated preoperatively and postoperatively at 1 year.
No significant difference between treatment groups was observed with respect to the mean change (pre- to postoperatively) in elbow flexion in adduction and abduction and biceps strength. The Oberlin transfer group gained significantly more supination (100° vs 19°; p < 0.0001). Forearm pronation was maintained at 90° in the Oberlin transfer group whereas it was slightly improved in the grafting group (0° vs 32°; p = 0.02). Shoulder, wrist, and hand functions were comparable between treatment groups.
The preliminary data from this study demonstrate that the Oberlin transfer confers an advantageous early recovery of forearm supination over grafting, with equivalent elbow flexion recovery. Further studies that monitor real-world arm usage will provide more insight into the most appropriate surgical strategy for NBPP.