Timing of surgery in traumatic brachial plexus injury: a systematic review

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Ideal timeframes for operating on traumatic stretch and blunt brachial plexus injuries remain a topic of debate. Whereas on the one hand spontaneous recovery might occur, on the other hand, long delays are believed to result in poorer functional outcomes. The goal of this review is to assess the optimal timeframe for surgical intervention for traumatic brachial plexus injuries.


A systematic search was performed in January 2017 in PubMed and Embase databases according to the PRISMA guidelines. Search terms related to “brachial plexus injury” and “timing” were used. Obstetric plexus palsies were excluded. Qualitative synthesis was performed on all studies. Timing of operation and motor outcome were collected from individual patient data. Patients were categorized into 5 delay groups (0–3, 3–6, 6–9, 9–12, and > 12 months). Median delays were calculated for Medical Research Council (MRC) muscle grade ≥ 3 and ≥ 4 recoveries.


Forty-three studies were included after full-text screening. Most articles showed significantly better motor outcome with delays to surgery less than 6 months, with some studies specifying even shorter delays. Pain and quality of life scores were also significantly better with shorter delays. Nerve reconstructions performed after long time intervals, even more than 12 months, can still be useful. All papers reporting individual-level patient data described a combined total of 569 patients; 65.5% of all patients underwent operations within 6 months and 27.4% within 3 months. The highest percentage of ≥ MRC grade 3 (89.7%) was observed in the group operated on within 3 months. These percentages decreased with longer delays, with only 35.7% ≥ MRC grade 3 with delays > 12 months. A median delay of 4 months (IQR 3–6 months) was observed for a recovery of ≥ MRC grade 3, compared with a median delay of 7 months (IQR 5–11 months) for ≤ MRC grade 3 recovery.


The results of this systematic review show that in stretch and blunt injury of the brachial plexus, the optimal time to surgery is shorter than 6 months. In general, a 3-month delay appears to be appropriate because while recovery is better in those operated on earlier, this must be considered given the potential for spontaneous recovery.

ABBREVIATIONS AFRS = average final result of surgery; DASH = Disability of the Arm, Shoulder and Hand questionnaire; IQR = interquartile range; MRC = Medical Research Council; PRISMA = Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis; SF-36 = 36-Item Short-Form Health Survey; VAS = visual analog scale.

Article Information

Correspondence Enrico Martin: University Medical Center Utrecht, The Netherlands. e.martin@students.uu.nl.


INCLUDE WHEN CITING Published online June 1, 2018; DOI: 10.3171/2018.1.JNS172068.

Disclosures The authors report no conflict of interest concerning the materials or methods used in this study or the findings specified in this paper.

© AANS, except where prohibited by US copyright law.



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    Flowchart depicting study selection.

  • View in gallery

    Surgical timing and muscle grade of individual-level patient data: all patients (A), C5–6 lesions (B), C5–7 lesions (C), C5–T1 lesions (D), and infraclavicular lesions (E).

  • View in gallery

    Box-and-whisker plot showing median delay in months for muscle grade.



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