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Comparison of Nerve Transfers and Nerve Grafting for Traumatic Upper Plexus Palsy: A Systematic Review and Analysis
Rohit Garg, MBBS1; Gregory A. Merrell, MD2; Howard J. Hillstrom, PhD1; Scott W. Wolfe, MD1
1 Hospital for Special Surgery, 523 East 72nd Street, New York, NY 10021. E-mail address for R. Garg: gargr@hss.edu. E-mail address for H.J. Hillstrom: hillstromh@hss.edu. E-mail address for S.W. Wolfe: wolfes@hss.edu
2 Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center, 8501 Harcourt Road, Indianapolis, IN 46260. E-mail address: gregmerrell@gmail.com
View Disclosures and Other Information
Disclosure: The authors did not receive any outside funding or grants in support of their research for or preparation of this work. Neither they nor a member of their immediate families received payments or other benefits or a commitment or agreement to provide such benefits from a commercial entity.

Shoulder; Elbow
Investigation performed at the Hospital for Special Surgery, New York, NY, and the Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center, Indianapolis, Indiana

Copyright © 2011 by The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Inc.
J Bone Joint Surg Am, 2011 May 04;93(9):819-829. doi: 10.2106/JBJS.I.01602
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In treating patients with brachial plexus injury, there are no comparative data on the outcomes of nerve grafts or nerve transfers for isolated upper trunk or C5-C6-C7 root injuries. The purpose of our study was to compare, with systematic review, the outcomes for modern intraplexal nerve transfers for shoulder and elbow function with autogenous nerve grafting for upper brachial plexus traumatic injuries.


PubMed, EMBASE, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials were searched for studies in which patients had surgery for traumatic upper brachial plexus palsy within one year of injury and with a minimum follow-up of twelve months. Strength and shoulder and elbow motion were assessed as outcome measures. The Fisher exact test and Mann-Whitney U test were used to compare outcomes, with an alpha level of 0.05.


Thirty-one studies met the inclusion criteria. Two hundred and forty-seven (83%) and 286 (96%) of 299 patients with nerve transfers achieved elbow flexion strength of grade M4 or greater and M3 or greater, respectively, compared with thirty-two (56%) and forty-seven (82%) of fifty-seven patients with nerve grafts (p < 0.05). Forty (74%) of fifty-four patients with dual nerve transfers for shoulder function had shoulder abduction strength of grade M4 or greater compared with twenty (35%) of fifty-seven patients with nerve transfer to a single nerve and thirteen (46%) of twenty-eight patients with nerve grafts (p < 0.05). The average shoulder abduction and external rotation was 122° (range, 45° to 170°) and 108° (range, 60° to 140°) after dual nerve transfers and 50° (range, 0° to 100°) and 45° (range, 0° to 140°) in patients with nerve transfers to a single nerve.


In patients with demonstrated complete traumatic upper brachial plexus injuries of C5-C6, the pooled international data strongly favors dual nerve transfer over traditional nerve grafting for restoration of improved shoulder and elbow function. These data may be helpful to surgeons considering intraoperative options, particularly in cases in which the native nerve root or trunk may appear less than optimal, or when long nerve grafts are contemplated.

Level of Evidence: 

Therapeutic Level IV. See Instructions to Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.

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    These activities have been planned and implemented in accordance with the Essential Areas and policies of the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) through the joint sponsorship of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Inc. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons is accredited by the ACCME to provide continuing medical education for physicians.
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