Surgeons restore arm function in paralysed patients

Friday, 05 July, 2019

Surgeons restore arm function in paralysed patients

A new Australian surgical technique has restored hand function to 13 young adults with complete paralysis in their arms.

The young adults with tetraplegia are now able to feed themselves, hold a drink, brush their teeth and write as a result of a novel surgical technique which connects functioning nerves with injured nerves to restore power in paralysed muscles.

The nerve transfer surgery has enabled the patients to regain movement and function in their elbows and hands, according to a report published in The Lancet.

During the surgery, Australian surgeons attached functioning nerves above the spinal injury to paralysed nerves below the injury. Two years after surgery, and following intensive physical therapy, participants were able to reach their arm out in front of them and open their hand to pick up and manipulate objects. Restoring elbow extension improved their ability to propel their wheelchair and to transfer into bed or a car.

They can now perform everyday tasks independently such as feeding themselves, brushing teeth and hair, putting on make-up, writing, handling money and credit cards, and using tools and electronic devices.

The findings suggest that nerve transfers can achieve similar functional improvements to traditional tendon transfers, with the benefit of smaller incisions and shorter immobilisation times after surgery.

In 10 participants, nerve transfers were uniquely combined with tendon transfers allowing different styles of reconstruction to be performed in each hand, and enabling participants to benefit from the innate strengths of both tendon and nerve transfers. Nerve transfers restored more natural movement and finer motor control in one hand, and tendon transfers restored more power and heavy lifting ability in the other hand.

While only a small study, researchers say that nerve transfers are a major advance in the restoration of hand and arm function, and offer another safe, reliable surgical option for people living with tetraplegia.

Nevertheless, four nerve transfers failed in three participants and the authors conclude that more research will be needed to determine which people are the best candidates to select for nerve transfer surgery to minimise the incidence of failure.

Despite these achievements, nerve transfer surgery still has some limitations. For the best results nerve transfers should ideally be performed within 6–12 months of injury. Additionally, it can take months after nerve transfer for nerve regrowth into the paralysed muscle to occur and for new movement to be seen, and years until full strength is achieved. However, the authors note that one of the benefits of nerve transfers is that most movements not successfully restored by nerve transfers can still be restored using tendon transfers.

Image credit: © tuchel

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