What Is the Brachial Plexus?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2014
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The brachial plexus is a grouping of nerves that is connected to the spine. This network of nerves begins at the region of the spine that connects with the back area of the neck. The collection of nerves then runs through the armpit of each arm, where the brachial plexus works with the nerves in the upper portion of the arm to manage movement of the limb.

When some type of brachial plexus injury takes place, the damage not only affects the function of this network of nerves, but also the collections of nerves that receive impulses from the plexus. This means that areas such as the hands, arms, and shoulders will all experience some sort of decrease in feeling and mobility, depending on the extent of the brachial plexus injuries. In relatively minor situations, the may be some numbness and possibly a small amount of pain. When severe damage is sustained, there is a chance of temporary or even permanent paralysis.

One of the more common examples of an injury to the brachial nerve network takes place during the process of birth. As the baby passes through the birth canal, there may be some constriction that places additional pressure on the shoulders of the child. When this happens, the brachial plexus may be stretched and possibly torn. Fortunately, the damage normally heals on its own or requires a minimally invasive procedure to correct the problem, and the child will bear no lasting injury.

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Medical experts tend to classify the various injuries involving the brachial plexus into four groups or categories. Neurapraxia is used to identify situations in which there is some damage sustained from stretching, but no tears have developed. Considered the most common form of injury to the plexus, it is also the easiest to treat, usually by providing medication for the pain while the body heals naturally.

Neuroma is a more serious problem, involving the formation of scar tissue around the injured area. The scar tissue can place additional stress on the network of nerves, resulting in problems like numbness or sharp bursts of pain from time to time. Removing the scar tissue through surgical means is sometimes the best treatment for neuroma.

With a rupture, the general brachial plexus anatomy has sustained some sort of tear, but not one that has resulted in disconnecting the nerve group from the spinal connection. Surgery is the only solution with damage of this type, and will normally provide quick relief as the swelling begins to subside.

The most severe type of brachial plexus injury is known as an avulsion. When an avulsion is present, the connection to the spine has been severed, often through tearing the plexus away. As with a rupture, avulsion requires surgical intervention to reconnect the nerve network to the spine and allow the feeling and mobility to slowly return.

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