Mild Brachial Plexus Injury: The Causes

A mild brachial plexus injury can affect the sensitivity and mobility of the arm. We'll explain what it is and how it's treated here.
Mild Brachial Plexus Injury: The Causes
Diego Pereira

Reviewed and approved by the doctor Diego Pereira.

Written by Carmen Martín

Last update: 16 June, 2023

A mild brachial plexus injury is quite common. Some people refer to this injury as ‘burning’, since it manifests with a burning sensation running down the arm. It often occurs during contact sports, such as wrestling or rugby. However, it can also have other causes.

The brachial plexus comprises a bundle of nerves responsible for transmitting nerve impulses to the hand, arm, and shoulder. Although the injury is usually temporary, it sometimes leads to complications. Hence the importance of recognizing and treating it. Here are all the details.

What is a mild brachial plexus injury?

The brachial plexus is a group of nerves. It’s formed by the primary branches of the cervical nerves C5, C6, C7, C8, and T1, mainly. In addition, it extends through the neck, axilla, and arm. In fact, its main function is to innervate the shoulder, arm, and hand.

Due to its location, injuries are frequent. According to Mayo Clinic specialists, these occur when the nerves that form the brachial plexus are stretched, torn, or compressed.

The mild injury is known in popular parlance as ‘burning’, since its main clinical manifestation is a burning or stinging sensation in the arm. It occurs with some regularity in contact sports, due to the impacts they produce. Even so, they’re not its only cause.

Although this is not usually a serious injury, it’s essential to diagnose and treat it properly to avoid complications. When the injury is severe, it can lead to paralysis of the arm. However, this is more common in car accidents or during childbirth.

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What can cause a mild brachial plexus injury?

A mild brachial plexus injury, as we pointed out in the previous section, usually occurs due to a stretching or compression of one of the nerves that form the brachial plexus. This can happen when there is a sudden movement of the head to one side.

It’s also common that the mechanism of injury is to force the shoulder downwards, at the same time that the neck is stretched too much upwards, which produces an excessive stretching of the nerves. Both situations are usually the result of an injury.

Meanwhile, a mild brachial nerve injury can result from an intense blow to the clavicle. In most cases, it’s due to contact sports. For example, football or wrestling.

However, any injury for another reason can also cause it. It’s possible that the injury is the result of a tumor compressing one of the nerves. Radiotherapy used as a treatment for some tumors has also been associated with this pathology.

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Risk factors

The first risk factor for suffering a mild brachial plexus injury is playing contact sports. According to an article in The Center for Musculoskeletal Disorders almost 70% of American football have suffered from this injury at some point in time.

Another factor that increases the likelihood is the fact of having spinal stenosis. This condition means that the spinal canal is narrower than usual. As a result, the spinal cord and nerves can become compressed.

Associated symptoms

Mild brachial plexus injury causes a burning sensation. It’s similar to an electric shock that spreads down the arm, like a burning sensation. It usually lasts a few seconds or minutes.

As it is related to trauma, pain in the area of the blow is common. The affected arm is usually numb and feels weak. The problem is that these symptoms, in some people, persist for days or even weeks.

When to consult a doctor

Although in most cases it is temporary and limited, it’s always advisable to consult a doctor, especially if this burning sensation persists or appears recurrently. The risk of a serious injury can never be underestimated.

It’s important for a doctor to study this type of injury, because it can cause permanent disability. If, in addition to the symptoms described above, there are other warning signs, such as neck pain or severe weakness, make sure to seek immediate help.

How is a mild brachial plexus injury diagnosed?

Diagnosis of a mild brachial plexus injury can be complex. It’s important for the physician to know all the details of the accident or blow, as well as what the symptoms are like. Similarly, a thorough physical examination should be performed.

However, a number of additional tests are usually required to rule out other possible injuries. One of the most commonly used is an X-ray. This test can identify if there is a fracture in the clavicle or any other bone.

Sometimes studies are performed to check if the nerves are conducting impulses properly. Electromyography is also often used. This is a test to evaluate the electrical activity of the muscles.

If it is suspected that the injury may involve the spinal cord or nerve roots, a CT myelogram may be performed. This is a complex test that allows a more detailed image of these areas to be obtained. An MRI may also be helpful.

Treatments available

Fortunately, many people with mild brachial plexus injury do not require treatment. However, in cases where treatment is necessary, it will depend on the severity of the injury. There are non-surgical and surgical treatments.

Non-surgical treatments

One of the most fundamental issues, as explained in an article from OrthoInfo is to prevent the injury from worsening. Therefore, if the cause has been a sporting activity, it should not be resumed until the symptoms have completely disappeared.

In many cases, physiotherapy is recommended. With certain specific exercises, it’s possible to prevent the muscles from atrophy or the articulations from suffering. Ideally, it should be a treatment guided by a specialist.

Surgical treatment

When the injury does not improve in the following days or months, it may be that the nerve damage is irrecoverable. However, there are different surgical techniques that can repair this type of injury. It is recommended to perform them at least six months after the injury.

One of the techniques is nerve grafting. It consists of removing the damaged area of the nerve and replacing it with a nerve from another part of the body. This allows nerve impulses to pass through that area again.

There are other surgical treatments, such as neurolysis, nerve or muscle transfer. All these techniques aim to do the same as the previous one; repair the nerve so that sensitivity and mobility can be restored.

Can a mild brachial plexus injury be prevented?

A mild brachial plexus injury cannot always be prevented. However, as a Family Doctor article explains , there are some simple measures that can help. For example, it’s recommended to strengthen the shoulder and neck muscles.

If you are going to do contact sports, always wear protective equipment. In particular, the neck area should be protected. It’s also recommended to stretch the muscles before and after each physical activity.

Once the injury has occurred, it’s recommended to keep the affected area moving. Otherwise, the joints may become stiff in a short time, or the muscles may atrophy. In any case, always try to consult a physician and follow his or her instructions.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.