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The nerves that form an intricate network transmitting electrical signals between the spine and shoulder can receive mild to severe damage, which limits or completely restricts muscle movements in the arm, hand, elbow, and/or shoulder. Referred to as the brachial plexus, the elaborate nerve network incurs damage because of the ripping or stretching of nerves from the spine.

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When physicians diagnose the medical condition, they typically classify the injury into one of three categories. The diagnosis of brachial plexus palsy determines the treatment strategy implemented by health care professionals.

What Causes Arm and Shoulder Nerve Damage?

Elk & Elk

Studies performed on the incidence of obstetric brachial plexus palsy put the rate at about one percent of successful births. The pressure on the shoulder causes nerve damage to vulnerable infants that become stuck in the mother’s birth canal. Shoulder dystocia represents the medical term for the medical condition. Obstetricians have to diagnose shoulder dystocia quickly, and then perform subtle maneuvers to move the infant through the womb.

Athletes who participate in violent contact sports such as football and hockey receive stingers, which stretch or rip apart muscle nerves that run through the arm and shoulder. The growth of tumors and development of muscle inflammation also contribute to palsy of the brachial plexus. Injuries to the arm caused by car or motorcycle accidents create serious medical problems that often require invasive surgery to repair nerve damage. Some of the surgeries performed to treat serious nerve injuries include nerve grafts, nerve transfers, or muscle transfers. The goal is to restore at least some of the nerve function.

Three Types of Damage to Arm and Shoulder Nerves

Health care professionals have classified the injuries into three types.

Erb’s Palsy

As the most common form of the nerve injury, Erb's palsy impacts arm roots located near the shoulder. You retain complete functioning of the hands and fingers, but the upper arm begins to lose the sensation of touch. As the mildest type of the nerve injury, patients require the passage of time to heal the damaged nerves. Erb's Palsy occurs most often during childbirth when an infant's shoulder becomes stuck in the birth canal. Doctors who respond immediately to the discovery of shoulder dystocia provide infants with the opportunity to enjoy a full recovery.

Klumpke’s Paralysis

Discovered in less than one percent of all cases, Klumpke’s Paralysis occurs when lower arm roots receive damage. You maintain use of the shoulder, but you can expect your hand and fingers to weaken and in some cases, become paralyzed.

Total Plexus Palsy

The most severe form of brachial plexus palsy includes both the lower and upper nerves of the vast network of nerves that run from the spine to the shoulder. Victims of Total Plexus Palsy receive the worst prognosis for recovery. Surgery is the typical method implemented for treating the most severe nerve damage cases.

Although health care professionals define brachial plexus palsy by creating three categories, the fact remains that within each category, you can experience different levels of pain and nerve damage. Each victim of the nerve injury experiences unique combinations of symptoms that determine the length of time required for recovery. Doctors usually refer milder cases of the medical condition to physical therapists for immediate work on the damaged section of the arm, hand, elbow, and/or shoulder.