Traumatic Brachial Plexopathy Clinical Presentation

Updated: Sep 13, 2023
  • Author: Vladimir Kaye, MD; Chief Editor: Elizabeth A Moberg-Wolff, MD  more...
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History taking should include inquiry into the mechanism of injury, as well as a description of patient symptoms. Common mechanisms of injury involve cervical extension, rotation, lateral bending, and depression or hyperabduction of the shoulder.

Patients should be queried about weakness, sensory loss, paresthesias and dysesthesias, and the location of symptoms in the arm.



The physician should examine the cervical spine, shoulder, clavicle, scapula, and related joints for range of motion (ROM), alignment, and tender points. A thorough neurologic examination of the upper extremity should include manual muscle testing, sensory examination, and an evaluation of deep tendon reflexes. [15]

  • The site of injury can be accurately localized with a precise neurologic examination by using the correlative neuroanatomy.

  • A sensory examination should include testing for light-touch sensation, pinprick sensation, 2-point discrimination, vibration sensation, and proprioception.

  • In an anterior dislocation of the shoulder, the sensory distribution of the axillary and musculocutaneous nerves are tested to detect nerve injury in the early stages.

  • Associated problems that require prompt attention can be identified with the following:

    • Evaluation of joint instability and scapular winging

    • Auscultation to detect hemidiaphragmatic paralysis

    • Observation of patterns of muscle weakness and/or atrophy, in which the injured side is compared with the uninvolved side

    • Testing for SCI and TBI



As previously noted, a large proportion of brachial plexopathies are caused by trauma. The mechanism of traumatic injuries and the magnitude, rate, and direction of deforming forces ultimately determine the extent and location of the injury. Mechanisms include traction, penetrating injury, and crushing or compression.

Closed injuries, such as those caused by motor vehicle accidents, industrial accidents, and sports-related trauma, are more common in civilian life than in military life. Violent torsion of the upper limb, either upward or downward, may damage the plexus. Shrapnel injuries and blast injuries, as well as gunshot wounds and knife injuries to the neck or axilla, can cause lesions in the brachial plexus. [16]

Iatrogenic injuries occur during surgery, particularly in procedures involving the following: (1) neck or shoulder, (2) opening of the chest, (3) regional anesthetic blocks, and (4) placement of cannulas. Injuries to the brachial plexus of neonates may occur during birth, as a result of the strain placed on the plexus by a wide separation of the head and shoulder or by forced adduction of the shoulder joint during a difficult delivery. [17, 3]