Picking up a spoon to stir your coffee seems like a simple thing. But each time you do it, you activate an intricate bundle of nerves that starts in the spinal cord in your neck and reaches down into your shoulders and arms, combining and splitting off into branches. This network of nerves is called the brachial plexus—you have one on each side. When you decide you’re ready to mix that teaspoon of sugar into your coffee, these nerves carry the message from your brain to your hand.
Though it’s possible to injure your brachial plexus without even knowing you did so, the consequences can include temporary numbness to your arm, pain, loss of sensation or even paralysis. “What commonly happens is the patient has no idea they have a severe injury to the brachial plexus. They know their hand or arm is not working properly, but they often don’t know why, and that there may be a way to treat the problem. It’s important to consult with a hand surgeon as quickly as possible,” says Grant Thomson, MD, chief of hand and microsurgery within the Yale Medicine Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery.
If a patient does need surgery, it should be scheduled within six months after the injury. “If you wait longer than six months, the chance of a successful repair goes way down,” he says.
Yale Medicine is one among just a handful of centers in the country offering a highly complex operation called nerve transfer surgery for brachial plexus. Dr. Thomson says nerve transfer surgery has a better prognosis than the traditional approach, which is reconstruction of the brachial plexus.