It is not uncommon for a severe traumatic brachial plexus injury to involve all 5 roots, resulting in a flail upper limb. In such cases, surgical reconstruction is often palliative, providing only rudimentary function. Nerve transfers are the mainstay of reconstructive strategies due to the predominance of root avulsions. Consistent results are obtained only for restoration of shoulder stability and elbow flexion, whereas restoring useful hand function remains a challenge. The transfer of the contralateral C-7 (cC-7) is commonly used in an attempt to restore basic hand function, but results are notoriously unreliable and inconsistent. Shu-feng Wang and colleagues recently proposed a potentially more successful permutation of this procedure. They advocated direct approximation of the cC-7 to the lower trunk on the paralyzed side, thus avoiding the interposition of nerve grafts. This technique involves a lengthy dissection of the cC-7 transfer across the midline via a prespinal route, as well as extensive mobilization of the ipsilateral lower trunk by cutting a subset of its branches, adducting the arm, and (if necessary) shortening the humerus. Each of these steps is indispensable to achieve direct approximation of the nerve ends. Many surgeons have tried to emulate Wang’s strategy. However, the technical difficulties involved have forced recourse to interposition of nerve grafts once again.
The authors report their observations in the first 22 patients in whom they performed this procedure. Direct cC-7 repair via the prespinal route was performed in 12 patients. Shortening of the humerus was necessary in 9 of these 12 patients. In 10 patients, a direct repair was not feasible and nerve grafting was performed. The median follow-up period was 26 months for the direct coaptation group and 28.5 months for the nerve graft group.
In the direct repair group, 10 of the 12 patients regained Medical Research Council Grade 3 flexion of the wrist and of the middle, ring, and little fingers, while the remaining 2 patients had Grade 2 function. Flexion appeared 12–14 months after the operation. At the latest follow-up, these patients could activate the wrist and hand without requiring significant augmentation maneuvers in the donor limb. In contrast, repair requiring interposition grafts resulted in Grade 3 strength in only 2 of 10 patients, while 7 had Grade 2 strength, and 1 experienced failure. In all grafted cases, the patient had to forcibly contract the contralateral pectoralis major and triceps muscles to produce the weak movements on the reconstructed side.
In this small series, the authors demonstrated a distinct advantage associated with the avoidance of grafts when transferring the cC-7 to restore hand function. The authors conclude that efforts to achieve direct approximation of the donor C-7 and the recipient lower trunk are necessary and justified.