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June 2018

An Update on the Management of Neonatal Brachial Plexus Palsy—Replacing Old Paradigms: A Review

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Neurosurgery, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • 2Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • 3Department of Neurosurgery, Stanford University, Stanford, California
JAMA Pediatr. 2018;172(6):585-591. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.0124

Importance  Neonatal brachial plexus palsy (NBPP) can result in persistent deficits for those who develop it. Advances in surgical technique have resulted in the availability of safe, reliable options for treatment. Prevailing paradigms include, “all neonatal brachial plexus palsy recovers,” “wait a year to see if recovery occurs,” and “don’t move the arm.” Practicing by these principles places these patients at a disadvantage. Thus, the importance of this review is to provide an update on the management of NBPP to replace old beliefs with new paradigms.

Observations  Changes within denervated muscle begin at the moment of injury, but without reinnervation become irreversible 18 to 24 months following denervation. These time-sensitive, irreversible changes are the scientific basis for the recommendations herein for the early management of NBPP and put into question the old paradigms. Early referral has become increasingly important because improved outcomes can be achieved using new management algorithms that allow surgery to be offered to patients unlikely to recover sufficiently with conservative management. Mounting evidence supports improved outcomes for appropriately selected patients with surgical management compared with natural history. Primary nerve surgery options now include nerve graft repair and nerve transfer. Specific indications continue to be elucidated, but both techniques offer a significant chance of restoration of function.

Conclusions and Relevance  Mounting data support both the safety and effectiveness of surgery for patients with persistent NBPP. Despite this support, primary nerve surgery for NBPP continues to be underused. Surgery is but one part of the multidisciplinary care of NBPP. Early referral and implementation of multidisciplinary strategies give these children the best chance of functional recovery. Primary care physicians, nerve surgeons, physiatrists, and occupational and physical therapists must partner to continue to modify current treatment paradigms to provide improved quality care to neonates and children affected by NBPP.