Neonatal Brachial Plexus Palsies Treatment & Management

Updated: Jun 17, 2016
  • Author: Jennifer Semel-Concepcion, MD; Chief Editor: Elizabeth A Moberg-Wolff, MD  more...
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Rehabilitation Program

Physical Therapy

The rehabilitation of children with brachial plexus palsy (BPP) must begin in infancy to achieve optimal functional returns. For the first 2 weeks, the child may have some pain in the affected shoulder and limb, either from the injury or from an associated clavicular or humeral fracture. The arm can be fixed across the child's chest by pinning of his/her clothing to provide more comfort. However, some authors have discouraged this pinning in favor of immediate institution of gentle ROM exercises. Parents should be instructed in techniques for dressing the child to avoid further traction on the arm. Often a wrist extension splint is necessary to maintain proper wrist alignment and reduce the risk of progressive contractures.

Therapy is the cornerstone in the management of the symptoms of a child with BPP. The role of the treating physician is to guide the program and make critical decisions regarding the need for further medical or surgical intervention. As the child gets older, bimanual activities (eg, swimming, basketball, wheelbarrow walking, climbing) should be encouraged. A comprehensive therapy program that has been designed and implemented by a pediatric physical therapist is essential for children whose case is being managed conservatively, as well as for children who require surgical intervention.

A pediatric physical or occupational therapist's role is 2-fold. The first responsibility of the therapist is to provide ongoing therapeutic treatment and parental instruction. By the very nature of therapy, the therapist's second function is to provide precise and ongoing assessment of the infant's functional status and recovery, to assist the physician in determining future medical and surgical considerations, and to assess the efficacy of these interventions.

When dealing with infants and young children, the pediatric therapist should evaluate the child based on normal development and age-appropriate skills. The therapist's initial evaluation of an infant with BPP should include specific details about passive and active ROM, the strength of each muscle or muscle groups, and the posture of the affected limb compared with the other extremity, as well details regarding sensibility and overall function.

Formal goniometry should be employed to measure active and passive ROM. Standardized strength testing, although difficult in young children, is necessary for objective documentation of recovery. Physical therapists at the Hospital for Sick Children of Toronto have devised a simple observation tool that evaluates active joint movement against gravity. Based on observations of movement, a clinical grade is assigned to quantify the patient's status, and progress can be tracked over time. Comparison of the movement patterns of the affected and unaffected arm also is useful. Testing of sensation, posture, and functional activity is performed through clinical observation.

A comprehensive therapy program should consist of ROM exercises, facilitation of active movement, strengthening, promotion of sensory awareness, and provision of instructions for home activities. Overall goals should focus on minimizing bony deformities and joint contractures associated with BPP, while optimizing functional outcomes.

Severe contractures should be avoidable with consistent therapeutic exercises, including passive and active stretching, flexibility activities, myofascial release techniques, and joint mobilization.

Over time, these contractures can lead to progressive bony deformity and shoulder dislocation. Early and consistent stretching of internal rotators should minimize the risk of this problem. External rotation, performed with the shoulder adducted alongside the chest and with the elbow flexed to 90°, provides maximum stretch of internal rotators (specifically, the subscapularis) and the anterior shoulder capsule. The scapula should be stabilized while stretching shoulder girdle muscles to maintain mobility and preserve some scapulohumeral rhythm. Early development of flexion contractures at the elbow is common and can be exacerbated by radial head dislocation caused by forced supination. Aggressive forearm supination, therefore, should be avoided.

Active mobility and strengthening initially are facilitated through age-appropriate developmental activities. As the child gets older, standard strengthening exercises are used and specific functional skills are introduced. Specific muscle groups can be targeted for strengthening through functional movement. Compensatory and substitute movements should be avoided, as they may perpetuate weak muscles and deformity.

Static and dynamic splinting of the arm is useful to reduce contractures, prevent further deformity, and in some cases, assist movement. Commonly prescribed splints include resting hand and wrist splints, elbow extension splints, dynamic elbow flexion and supinator splints. Careful selection and timing of splint use is essential to optimization of the desired effect.

Taping techniques may be used by the therapist to control scapular instability and hence to promote improved shoulder mobility.

Sensory awareness activities are useful for enhancing active motor performance, as well as for minimizing neglect of the affected limb. Use of infant massage and drawing visual attention to the affected arm can be incorporated easily into play and daily activities. Weight-bearing activities with the affected arm in all positions not only provide necessary proprioceptive input but also can contribute to skeletal growth.

Instructing parents and family in a home exercise program is instrumental in effective management of BPP cases. A comprehensive program that includes stretching exercises, safe handling and early positioning techniques, developmental and strengthening activities, and sensory awareness should be developed and updated as needed. In older children with persistent disability, the focus on home instruction shifts to independence, with these patients learning self-stretching and strengthening exercises, as well as strategies for achieving specific life skills. The focus of therapy often is directed toward more recreational activities, such as swimming or basketball.

Occupational Therapy

See Physical Therapy.

Recreational Therapy

Bimanual recreational activities, such as swimming, basketball, wheelbarrow walking, and climbing, should be encouraged.


Medical Issues/Complications

Aggressive forearm supination can lead to radial head dislocation. Unlike nursemaid's elbow, radial head dislocation does not relocate easily in children with brachial plexus palsy (BPP) and can lead to a permanent elbow flexion contracture.

A small, but significant, percentage of children mutilate their fingers and hands as toddlers. Parents should be warned of this possibility, and they should take care to avoid cutaneous infection.

Without regular stretching, the child with residual weakness from BPP is at risk for progressive contractures, posterior shoulder dislocation, and agnosia of the affected limb.

Scoliosis can develop from muscle imbalance and asymmetrical motor patterns.


Surgical Intervention

Early surgery/neurosurgical intervention

By the early 1900s, surgeons began performing exploratory surgery on children with brachial plexus palsy (BPP). In 1925, when Sever's series of 1100 cases failed to show significant functional benefit, interest in neurosurgical intervention faded. [15] With the advent of new microsurgical techniques, renewed interest arose in the mid-1980s, and now many centers across the US, Canada, and Europe are performing these procedures for neurologic intervention in patients with BPP. [16]

Debate continues among experts in the field on the timing and indications for neurosurgical intervention. [17] On one side are physicians who believe that spontaneous recovery occurs gradually over the first few years and that early surgical intervention may be unwarranted in many cases. On the other side are physicians who feel that surgical intervention is most effective when performed when the patient is young, in some cases as young as 2 months, and that a delay in surgery results in a less favorable outcome.

Additionally, there is controversy about whether EMG provides useful prognostic information to select appropriate surgical candidates (see Other Tests). [18] Unfortunately, the lack of uniform outcome measures and of large, controlled studies has prevented this debate from being put to rest. Many authors do agree that early surgery should be considered in children who have injuries affecting the entire brachial plexus (ie, C5-T1).

Two neurosurgical options (ie, neurolysis vs excision of the neuroma and nerve graft reconstruction) exist.

Neurolysis involves removal of scar tissue while taking care to avoid damaging the underlying nerve fibers. This procedure is performed most often when nerve grafting is necessary for treatment of more extensive brachial plexus lesions. Generally, intraoperative nerve stimulation is performed to see the extent of transmission across a neuroma. Differences of opinion exist on the criteria for neurolysis. Some surgeons perform neurolysis if there is conduction across the neuroma and appropriate distal muscle contractions, while others resort to nerve grafting when the amplitude of the motor unit action potential drops 50% or more as it crosses the neuroma. [19]

In 2006, Konig and associates studied the use of intraoperative nerve conduction in the management of neuroma-in-continuity associated with upper brachial plexus palsies in 10 children. [20] The investigators found markedly better outcomes in patients without recordable compound nerve action potentials (CNAPs) who were treated with nerve resection than they did in patients with CNAPs present across the neuroma who underwent neurolysis. This report suggested that the use of nerve conduction studies has little utility when they are employed to make surgical decisions in the treatment of neuroma.

Nerve graft reconstruction involves taking a donor nerve, usually sural, and transposing it to the area of the excised neuroma. The nerve is reversed and attached (with fibrin glue or suture) proximally to a donor spinal nerve, in most cases, and then to the nerve fibers distal to the excised neuroma. The arm usually is immobilized for 1 month postoperatively to allow the graft to begin healing. Subsequently, gentle ROM exercises are resumed. When clinical improvement occurs, it usually is noted by 3-9 months after the operation. [21]

Nerve transfer (neurotization) is required in cases where there is not a sufficient donor nerve, as in cases of avulsion or intraforaminal rupture. [22] The source may be extraplexual (ie, spinal accessory) or intraplexual (ie, C5 nerve root).

Tubulization is an adjuvant technique that has been described for use with nerve reconstruction when an insufficient amount of autologous nerve graft is available. It entails using a conduit to help guide the 2 ends of a nerve together. Biologic and synthetic "tubes" have been used in the process, including vein grafts, human amniotic membrane, collagen filaments, and silicone. In 2007, Terzis and colleagues described the successful use of vein grafts in 2 infants with BPP. [23] In comparison with some other materials, the vein's wall is believed to allow diffusion of the proper nutrients for nerve regeneration, act as a barrier against the in-growth of scar, and prevent wastage of the regenerating axons.

Research has focused on the use of neurotrophic factors following brachial plexus injuries. [24, 25] Studies in laboratory animals have shown that when neurotrophic factors are administered following a brachial plexus injury, motor neuron survival is significantly enhanced in comparison with untreated controls. The investigations have concluded that this may be a useful treatment in severe brachial plexopathies, particularly when used in conjunction with reconstructive neurosurgical techniques.

A number of studies have examined outcomes of surgical intervention in patients with BPP. Gilbert and colleagues performed nerve grafts on 178 children with BPP between 1978 and 1986 and reported that their results were superior to those associated with spontaneous recovery. [26] They quoted 0% spontaneous recovery of C5-C6 and C5-C7 injuries at 5 years, compared with 80% and 45% respectively in the surgical group. As a result of their experience, they recommended surgical exploration in patients with total BPP and associated Horner or Erb's palsy if those patients do not demonstrate contraction of the biceps by 3 months. [27, 28]

Gilbert also emphasized the importance of achieving a functional hand after brachial plexus repair. [26] In infants who have extensive paralysis of the hand, a surgical repair of the lower roots at the expense of the upper roots has been recommended.

Laurent and associates performed surgery on 50 infants (aged 2-6 mo in 44 cases and 7-24 mo in 6 cases). [29] Neurolysis was performed if conduction across the neuroma was greater than 50%. In total, end-to-end repairs were performed 60 times and neurolysis was carried out 41 times. One year after surgery, the patients were reevaluated; Laurent concluded that without surgical repair, the children would not have achieved antigravity shoulder function. However, Bodensteiner and associates commented in an editorial that the claims of superior outcome were not based on substantive data and that the surgical outcome quoted was not significantly better than previously published statistics of natural recovery.

Clarke and colleagues performed neurolysis on 16 infants, 9 with Erb's palsy and 7 with total BPP. [19] The average age at the time of surgery was 10 months. The study concluded that neurolysis improves muscle grade and function in Erb's palsy patients but not in patients with total plexus palsy. The authors felt that nerve grafting might offer better functional improvement in patients with total plexus palsy. One criticism of this and several other studies has been the lack of appropriate nonoperative controls.

In 2000, Strombeck and coauthors published the first retrospective series comparing outcomes for children treated surgically and nonsurgically. [30] They analyzed 247 children with BPP of varying severity at age 5 years and compared those who had undergone surgery with those who had received conservative treatment. The groups were matched and assessed for active ROM of each upper limb joint, tactile sensibility, grip strength, and fine motor skills (with the pick-up test). The group that had undergone surgery demonstrated more shoulder movement at age 5 years, but otherwise, the groups had similar outcomes. Children who underwent surgical intervention before or after 6 months demonstrated similar outcomes. The authors discouraged using deltoid or biceps activity at 3 months as the criterion for surgical intervention and came to the conclusion that children with little or no deltoid and biceps activity at 6-9 months were more appropriate surgical candidates.

In 2003, McNeely and Drake reviewed all relevant articles from 1966-2002, with the goal of establishing evidence-based recommendations for the surgical management of brachial plexus injuries. [31] After reviewing 23 articles, the investigators reported that although surgery may be a valid treatment option, no compelling evidence showed a benefit for surgery over conservative management in birth-related brachial plexus injuries.

In 2003, Grossman and colleagues reported on the outcome of combined surgeries performed on the brachial plexus and shoulder girdle in children aged 11-29 months. [32] The surgeries included neurolysis of the upper brachial plexus with nerve grafting, subscapularis release, and Botox injections into pectoralis major and latissimus. While 3 patients required additional surgery before follow-up, all 22 patients demonstrated an improvement of at least 2 grades on the modified Gilbert scale.

In 2006, O'Brien and associates performed a retrospective analysis of 58 cases (52 of which had follow-up data) of brachial plexus surgery, including nerve grafting, neurolysis, and neurotization (nerve transfer). [33] The investigators found that repair in patients aged 6 months who had less than antigravity strength in their biceps, triceps, and deltoid produced improvement in function to at least antigravity strength in these muscles by 2-year follow-up.

Late surgery/orthopedic and plastic surgery

Late surgery for BPP most often involves tendon transfers and/or osteotomies. Tendon transfers are performed most often to improve the flexibility and active movement of the shoulder. Release followed by transfer of the preserved internal rotators (ie, subscapularis, teres major, pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi) to the weaker shoulder abductors and external rotators is most common. Unless the shoulder joint is dislocated, tendon transfers often are delayed until age 2-4 years to allow for motor recovery, because the glenohumeral joint has begun taking its permanent form by this time. If the shoulder is displaced, surgical intervention is expedited in order to promote normal glenoid development. If elbow strength does not permit flexion past 90° with gravity present, surgical tendon transfers may be considered. The most common transfers include (1) triceps to biceps and (2) pectoralis major or latissimus dorsi to biceps.

Osteotomies generally are reserved for children with BPP who present at a later age, once bony changes are seen at the glenohumeral joint. In these cases, a humeral external rotation osteotomy can improve function.

Outcomes of muscle transfer procedures are discussed in several sources. Hoffer and colleagues performed muscle transfers on 8 children (average age 28 months) with posterior shoulder dislocation. [34] The latissimus dorsi and teres major muscles were released and transferred to the rotator cuff. At 3-year follow-up examinations, all children showed improved muscle strength in shoulder abduction and external rotation. Mean active shoulder abduction improved from a baseline of 84° preoperatively to 164° postoperatively. Passive external rotation improved by 62°, and radiographs showed reduction of the shoulder dislocation.

Chuang and colleagues described one technique to improve the flexibility of the shoulder in BPP. [35] As a result of cross-innervation, the existing muscle imbalance is exaggerated. The authors of this study proposed several muscle transfers for the shoulder, specifically, a release of internal rotators (ie, teres major, pectoralis major), followed by a transfer of teres major to infraspinatus and reinsertion of clavicular ends of pectoralis major laterally to augment weak muscles. In the Chuang study of 29 patients, the average age at surgical intervention was 8.5 years. The average improvement in shoulder abduction was from 77° and was 48° in external rotation.

Supination and pronation deformities may be suitable for surgical intervention, such as biceps rerouting and pronator teres lengthening, respectively. Price and associates reported good results in 20 of 21 patients who underwent these tendon transfers. [36] The supinated forearm may also be improved with a radius rotation osteotomy.

Waters and colleagues studied 48 patients prospectively with neonatal BPP to determine the outcomes of humeral derotation osteotomies and compare them with tendon transfers. [37] The patients had sequelae of internal rotation contracture, external rotation weakness, and shoulder dysfunction. CT scanning or MRI of the shoulder was performed to delineate the glenohumeral relationship. External rotational humeral osteotomies were performed on older children (average age 8.4 years) with severe glenohumeral deformity, while younger children (average age 4.9 years) with less glenohumeral pathology underwent tendon transfers (pectoralis major lengthening, latissimus and teres major transfer to the rotator cuff). In both groups, the combined Mallet score increased significantly, from 9.5 to 15.1 in the osteotomy group and from 9.5 to 15.6 in the transfer group

In 2002, Terzis and coauthors suggested that surgical correction to improve scapular stabilization may be of some functional and cosmetic benefit. [38] In a series of 26 patients, they performed a transfer of the contralateral trapezius muscle and/or rhomboids to anchor the affected scapula. In severe cases, the contralateral latissimus dorsi was also used. The investigators found improved scapular stability, as well as gains in active shoulder flexion, abduction, and external rotation.

In 2006, El-gammal and associates studied 109 obstetrical BPP patients with poor shoulder abduction and external rotation who underwent subscapularis release and transfer of the teres major to the infraspinatus, with or without pedicle transfer of the clavicular head of the pectoralis major to the deltoid. [39] Age at surgery was divided into 4 groups: younger than age 2 years, ages 2-4 years, ages 4-10 years, and older than age 10 years. Improvement in abduction averaged 64º (100%), and that of external rotation, 50º (290%), which negatively correlated with the age at surgery (P < 0.001). The investigators found that the best improvements in abduction and external rotation were obtained in patients below age 4 years, with the greatest results in the youngest group.


Assessment Tools

Mallet classification

The Mallet classification is arguably the most widely used tool to measure recovery after brachial plexus injury or subsequent surgical repair (see image below). It primarily reflects the integrity of muscles innervated by the upper brachial plexus. The arm is tested in 5 different natural movements: abduction, external rotation, hand behind head, hand to back, and hand to mouth. Scores can be affected not only by strength, but by joint contracture, bony deformity, and neglect of the affected limb.

Mallet classification. Mallet classification.

Grades II-IV are depicted in the above image. Grade I denotes no active motion and grade V reflects normal movement (equal to the contralateral limb if unaffected). Hence, aggregate scores range from 5-25.

Active Movement Scale

The Active Movement Scale was created by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto to assess motor function in infants with brachial plexus injuries. An infant is scored on 15 separate movements based on observational analysis. A muscle grade score of 0 (no contraction) to 7 (full motion) is assigned based on motion elicited. Fifteen movements are evaluated from the affected shoulder to the hand: shoulder abduction, adduction, external rotation, flexion, and internal rotation; elbow flexion and extension; forearm supination and pronation; wrist flexion and extension; finger extension and flexion; and thumb flexion and extension. Studies have denoted good interrater reliability with this tool. [40, 41]

Gilbert shoulder classification

See the list below:

  • Grade 0 is a complete flail shoulder.
  • Grade 1 (poor) is abduction equal to 45°, with no active external rotation.
  • Grade 2 (fair) is abduction of less than 90°, with no external rotation.
  • Grade 3 (satisfactory) is abduction equal to 90°, with weak external rotation.
  • Grade 4 (good) is abduction of less than 120°, with incomplete external rotation.
  • Grade 5 (excellent) is abduction of greater than 120°, with active external rotation.

Pediatric Outcomes Data Collection Instrument

The Pediatric Outcomes Data Collection Instrument is an established tool that measures upper extremity function, transfers and basic mobility, sports and physical function, comfort and pain, and happiness with physical condition.

In 2005, Huffman and colleagues reported on the administration of the test to 23 children with brachial plexus palsy (BPP) who were candidates for shoulder surgery. [42] The investigators found that clear differences existed between these children and age-matched controls in (1) upper extremity function, (2) sports, and (3) global function. The report concluded that the Pediatric Outcomes Data Collection Instrument may have further application as a tool to measure baseline function and postoperative functional gains for children with BPP.


Other Treatment

Neuromuscular electrical stimulation

Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) is used widely for children with BPP. NMES is a modality in which muscles are stimulated by pulsating alternating currents. The 2 main forms used are threshold and functional electrical stimulation (FES). The former can begin when the patient is young; it involves the application of low-frequency currents to the muscle. This technique has been reported to increase blood flow and possibly muscle bulk but has not been studied rigorously. FES involves stimulation with a higher-frequency current, causing the muscle to contract and the arm to move.

The stimulator needs to be titrated with assistance from the child to allow for sufficient muscle contraction and the avoidance of pain. Many children can cooperate sufficiently with this procedure by age 3 years, and the technique is helpful in prompting weak muscles to contract in functional situations. NMES has been reported in the literature as useful for facilitating muscle contraction and is used widely to minimize atrophy of affected muscles. No large studies have been published on the use of NMES with BPP, and its effect on reinnervation is not clear.

Botulinum toxin A therapy

Botulinum toxin A (BoNT-A) therapy is being used by several facilities to improve the flexibility of shoulder internal rotators. It is also used in the treatment of co-contractions, with the toxin administered to temporarily paralyze the functioning muscles/groups in order to allow weak muscles to become stronger. The usefulness of this intervention still is being studied.

A retrospective cohort study by Michaud et al supported the effectiveness of BoNT-A therapy in neonatal brachial plexus palsy (BPP). The study involved 59 patients with the condition, who underwent a total of 75 injection procedures in 91 muscles and/or muscle groups. Results included improvements in ROM for active and passive shoulder external rotation following shoulder internal rotator injections. In 67% of patients who received triceps injections, active elbow flexion improved and was sustained after the toxin was no longer active, and in 45% of patients who were being considered for surgery, the operation was modified, postponed, or avoided, after BoNT-A treatment. [43]



If multidisciplinary evaluation is not available, consultations from pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation, orthopedics, neurosurgery, and plastic surgery should be obtained for evaluation of the patient's suitability for surgical intervention.