MRI of the median nerve and median artery in the carpal tunnel: prevalence of their anatomical variations and clinical significance

Surg Radiol Anat. 2010 Mar;32(3):315-22. doi: 10.1007/s00276-009-0600-1. Epub 2009 Dec 22.


Objective: Anatomical variations of the median nerve and the persistent median artery (PMA) in the carpal tunnel (CT) are important to understand for their clinical and surgical significance. The aim of this cohort retrospective study was to investigate the prevalence of aberrant median nerve branches and persistent median artery in the CT in a selected population using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Materials and methods: MR wrist images of 194 patients, 77 males and 117 females, aged 12-80 years were randomly selected and retrieved from our clinical and radiology data base. The MR examinations were performed using either 1.5-T or 3.0-T magnet using a cylindrical receive-transmit wrist coil for all cases. The course of the bifurcation of the median nerve was followed on axial T2-weighted and axial proton density fat saturated images and classified as either proximal, within, or distal to the CT. The flexor retinaculum proximally and the metacarpal bases were used as anatomic landmarks to subdivide these three categories. In addition, the median artery was searched in order to assess the prevalence of its presence inside the CT. A total of 194 wrists were analyzed by two musculoskeletal-trained radiologists. They were blinded on the population age, gender, and the sides of the wrists. Agreement was reached by consensus.

Results: Among the 194 wrists, there was bifurcation of the nerve proximal to the CT in 12 (6.1%) wrists. There was nerve bifurcation within the CT in 36 (18%) wrists. Nerve bifurcation distal to the CT was more frequently observed, occurring in 147 (75%) wrists. Only one nerve trifurcation was seen within the CT. There was no gender predominance for the nerve bifurcation within the tunnel. There were 107 right wrists and 87 left wrists. On the right side, bifurcation of the nerve within the CT was seen in 21 (19.6%) wrists; and on the left side bifurcation of the nerve was present in 15 (17.2%) wrists. Statistically, we found no significant difference in the prevalence of the bifid nerve within the tunnel in the subgroups based on age, gender, or side of the wrists. A persistent median artery (PMA) within the tunnel was observed in 21 (11%) wrists--10 males and 11 females. Of these, four (19%) cases were presented with coexistent PMA and bifid median nerve within the tunnel. Statistically, we found that the two variations are not independent traits, and their covariance is not null.

Conclusion: There was a high prevalence of bifid median nerve (19%) and PMA (11%) within the tunnel regardless of gender or age. The PMA was more frequent on the left side.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Distribution
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Median Nerve / abnormalities*
  • Middle Aged
  • Observer Variation
  • Prevalence
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sex Distribution
  • Wrist / abnormalities
  • Wrist / blood supply*
  • Wrist / innervation*
  • Young Adult