Brain, Nervous System and Mental Conditions

Brachial Plexus Palsy

What Is a Brachial Plexus Palsy?

A brachial plexus (BRAKE-ee-uhl PLEKS-uss) palsy happens when the nerves of the brachial plexus have been damaged. The brachial plexus is a set of nerves that control the muscles of the arm.

Nerves are soft, tube-like structures inside the body. They contain many small fibers (called filaments), like a telephone cable or a thick electrical cord. These small filaments carry signals from the brain to control the muscles. Nerves also carry signals from the skin to the brain. This is how we feel things on our skin.

Anatomy of the Brachial Plexus

The nerves in the brachial plexus control the arm

The nerves of the brachial plexus go out from the spinal cord under the collarbone and into the armpit. From there, they branch out into individual nerves that control the muscles in the shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand.

When nerves in the brachial plexus get damaged, signals cannot travel like usual from the brain to the arm muscles. So some or all of your child's arm muscles may no longer work. When this affects only the shoulder and elbow muscles, it is called an Erb's palsy. When it affects all of the muscles of the arm, hand and wrist, this is known as a total plexus palsy. The word palsy means paralysis of muscles, or not being able to move muscles in an area.

Brachial Plexus Palsy in Children

Brachial plexus palsies usually happen because of a stretch injury to your child's head, neck and shoulder. This can happen during birth, especially when the birth is difficult or complex. Sometimes a child's shoulder will get stuck against the mother's pelvis, which can result in a stretch injury as your child is being delivered.

Vertex delivery with shoulder dystocia

The brachial plexus may be injured if a baby's shoulder gets stuck on the mother's pelvis during birth

In older children, a brachial plexus palsy can occur because of an accident where the neck and shoulder get stretched.

Many children with a brachial plexus palsy recover on their own in a few months to a year. Physical and occupational therapy can help with this. Some children need surgery to repair their nerves.

Brachial Plexus Palsy at Seattle Children's

Seattle Children's has a special Brachial Plexus Clinic - the only comprehensive clinic in the Northwest for children with this condition. Our team of doctors, surgeons, physical therapists, occupational therapists, nurses and other health professionals work together closely to provide care for children of all ages with a brachial plexus palsy.

If your child is referred to our Brachial Plexus Clinic, the team will assess your child's injury carefully. Then they will design a treatment plan that's right for your child. It's important for children with a brachial plexus palsy to begin treatment early and to have ongoing therapy. We will work with you and your child from the time of their injury until your child is an adult.

To schedule an appointment with the Brachial Plexus Clinic, please call 206-987-4680.