New York—August 1, 2012
Because many physicians are unaware of nerve transfer surgery, some patients suffer long-term impairment from nerve injuries that could have been fixed.
A study in the August issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (JAAOS) by Hospital for Special Surgery researchers aims to raise awareness of this type of surgery among health care providers. In recent years, great strides have been made in nerve transfer surgery, allowing many patients with a nerve injury in their upper extremity to have a remarkable recovery and improved functional outcomes.
“It’s obvious that many physicians don’t know what can be done, because often patients are referred too long after their injury. If we get these patients late, any nerve surgery is less likely to work,” said Steve K. Lee, MD, director of Research at the Center for Brachial Plexus and Traumatic Nerve Injury at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), lead author of the study. “A big thrust of this paper is to get the information out there that we need to see these patients earlier for better outcomes.”
Nerve injuries can be caused by a variety of events, including car and motorcycle accidents, sporting accidents, falls from heights such as construction accidents, and surgeries for head and neck cancer. Once a nerve is cut from a muscle, it has to be reinnervated within about 18 months before the muscle atrophies. Since nerves only regenerate one millimeter per day, sometimes they cannot regenerate and reach the muscle before it wastes away.
“It has been shown that if you do nerve reconstruction work and surgery before six months after a nerve is severed, then patients do far better,” said Dr. Lee, who is also Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the Weill Cornell Medical College and Associate Attending Orthopedic Surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery. “If it has been more than 18 months, even if the nerve regeneration length is two centimeters, it may still be too late.”
Nerve transfer surgeries are needed when a nerve end is nonfunctional or when nerve reconstruction would require an excessively long nerve graft. In the upper extremity, nerve transfers are most commonly used for injuries involving the brachial plexus, a network of nerves that run near the neck and shoulder. Other indications include complex injury to peripheral nerves, especially associated with fractures and dislocations, lacerations, injuries from projectiles and cancer.
In brachial plexus reconstructive surgery, which can take up to 12 hours, surgeons take nerves that have less important roles or are redundant and transfer them to restore function to a severely damaged nerve. Doctors use functioning nerves close to the target muscle and plug these nerves into the injured, nonfunctioning nerve. The rewired nerves then learn how to supply a new function. One of the most common transfers is to take part of the ulnar nerve that is involved in controlling the hand and rewiring this nerve so that it is hooked up to muscles that bend your elbow. “If you take a little part of these nerves, it doesn’t affect the hand,” said Dr. Lee.
The JAAOS study provides a review of the various techniques used for nerve transfer and details patient outcomes. Orthopedic surgeons, plastic surgeons and neurosurgeons perform the bulk of nerve transfer surgeries, but it is important for a variety of health care professionals to know what nerve transfer surgery can achieve.
“If a doctor has a patient who has one of these injuries and they read this paper, they will know that these surgeries can work. They will know what can be done rather than saying ‘let’s wait and see if it will heal by itself,’” said Dr. Lee. “This study is very important educationally for orthopedic surgeons and for anybody taking care of patients with nerve damage. Trauma surgeons, general surgeons, rehabilitation doctors, neurologists and physical therapists should know about this.”
Scott Wolfe, MD, director of the Center for Brachial Plexus and Traumatic Nerve Injury at HSS, was a coauthor of the study.
The Center for Brachial Plexus and Traumatic Nerve Injury at Hospital for Special Surgery is a national resource for men and women of all ages, providing diagnostic and reconstructive options for patients with injuries to or dysfunction of the peripheral nerve and brachial plexus. Using a multidisciplinary approach, the center utilizes the expertise of a wide range of health care professionals including orthopedic surgeons, physiatrists, neurologists, radiologists, psychiatrists, rheumatologists, pain management specialists, physical therapists and anesthesiologists, so that patients can benefit from a coordinated treatment experience.
About HSS | Hospital for Special Surgery
HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the ninth consecutive year) and No. 3 in rheumatology by U.S.News & World Report (2018-2019). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center four consecutive times. The global standard total knee replacement was developed at HSS in 1969. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State. In 2017 HSS provided care to 135,000 patients and performed more than 32,000 surgical procedures. People from all 50 U.S. states and 80 countries travelled to receive care at HSS. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Global Innovation Institute was formed in 2016 to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices. The culture of innovation is accelerating at HSS as 130 new idea submissions were made to the Global Innovation Institute in 2017 (almost 3x the submissions in 2015). The HSS Education Institute is the world’s leading provider of education on the topic on musculoskeletal health, with its online learning platform offering more than 600 courses to more than 21,000 medical professional members worldwide. Through HSS Global Ventures, the institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally.