Brachial Plexus Injuries

If you’ve suffered from tingling, numbness, or pain radiating down your arm, the problem may actually be nerve damage closer to your shoulder. Most of the nerves in the arm arise from the cervical spine, gathering in the neck. They bundle together with a nerve from the upper thorax into a network in the shoulder called the brachial plexus. When it gets stretched, a patient may incur dysfunction along their upper limb on that side of the body.

How Injuries Happen

The word “neuropraxia” describes when a nerve stretches to the point of causing pain or numbness. It occurs in the brachial plexus when the space between the shoulder and the neck or the shoulder and the chest is suddenly forced open. Most injuries occur when the shoulder is forced downward and the neck to the side. This commonly happens when people fall off motorcycles or bicycles. This kind of injury is also frequent in the world of wrestling and football, where the resultant pain is known as a “stinger” or “burner.” Injuries in which the shoulder is forced upward tend to happen when people lose their footing and grab onto something above them. When people suffer this kind of injury, they experience dysfunction in their hands. A crushing injury can also stretch the brachial plexus and its associated nerves. All these injuries are often accompanied by damage to muscles, ligaments, and bones, resulting in inflammation and more compression.

Risks and Consequences

Stingers are common during sports games. On-site doctors, such as sports chiropractors, may clear athletes to continue playing. The body is often able to heal itself from neuropraxia. However, if the joints are misaligned or the body’s tissues are otherwise out-of-place, the brachial plexus injury may heal in a way resulting in deformity. This would cause continual pressure on the nerve. People with more severe neuropraxia may also experience pain throughout recovery, and their muscles may stiffen or atrophy from lack of use. The brachial plexus can sometimes be compressed due to overuse injuries in surrounding structures, and people who have suffered even a minor traumatic injury are at greater risk for pain flare-ups due to wear-and-tear.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Nerve damage is diagnosed using Tinel’s test, in which nerves are lightly tapped. A practitioner may also want to do imaging tests or electromyography, which is used to assess muscles. Chiropractors will try to reduce pain and inflammation through physical therapy. Some practitioners use acupuncture or TENS to reduce swelling; many also recommend adjustments to the neck, shoulder joint, or soft tissues of the shoulder as needed. Sometimes braces, extra padding, or compression sleeves are necessary while a patient strengthens their arm. Nerve injuries heal slowly, but the sooner a patient seeks care, the better their odds of a full recovery will be.

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