Nerve transfers in the upper extremity following cervical spinal cord injury. Part 2: Preliminary results of a prospective clinical trial

J Neurosurg Spine. 2019 Jul 12;1-13. doi: 10.3171/2019.4.SPINE19399. Online ahead of print.


Objective: Patients with cervical spinal cord injury (SCI)/tetraplegia consistently rank restoring arm and hand function as their top functional priority to improve quality of life. Motor nerve transfers traditionally used to treat peripheral nerve injuries are increasingly used to treat patients with cervical SCIs. In this article, the authors present early results of a prospective clinical trial using nerve transfers to restore upper-extremity function in tetraplegia.

Methods: Participants with American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) grade A-C cervical SCI/tetraplegia were prospectively enrolled at a single institution, and nerve transfer(s) was performed to improve upper-extremity function. Functional recovery and strength outcomes were independently assessed and prospectively tracked.

Results: Seventeen participants (94.1% males) with a median age of 28.4 years (range 18.2-76.3 years) who underwent nerve transfers at a median of 18.2 months (range 5.2-130.8 months) after injury were included in the analysis. Preoperative SCI levels ranged from C2 to C7, most commonly at C4 (35.3%). The median postoperative follow-up duration was 24.9 months (range 12.0-29.1 months). Patients who underwent transfers to median nerve motor branches and completed 18- and 24-month follow-ups achieved finger flexion strength Medical Research Council (MRC) grade ≥ 3/5 in 4 of 15 (26.7%) and 3 of 12 (25.0%) treated upper limbs, respectively. Similarly, patients achieved MRC grade ≥ 3/5 wrist flexion strength in 5 of 15 (33.3%) and 3 of 12 (25.0%) upper limbs. Among patients who underwent transfers to the posterior interosseous nerve (PIN) for wrist/finger extension, MRC grade ≥ 3/5 strength was demonstrated in 5 of 9 (55.6%) and 4 of 7 (57.1%) upper limbs 18 and 24 months postoperatively, respectively. Similarly, grade ≥ 3/5 strength was demonstrated in 5 of 9 (55.6%) and 4 of 7 (57.1%) cases for thumb extension. No meaningful donor site deficits were observed. Patients reported significant postoperative improvements from baseline on upper-extremity-specific self-reported outcome measures.

Conclusions: Motor nerve transfers are a promising treatment option to restore upper-extremity function after SCI. In the authors' experience, nerve transfers for the reinnervation of hand and finger flexors showed variable functional recovery; however, transfers for the reinnervation of arm, hand, and finger extensors showed a more consistent and meaningful return of strength and function.

Keywords: AIN = anterior interosseous nerve; ASIA = American Spinal Injury Association; DASH = Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder, and Hand; ECRB = extensor carpi radialis brevis; ECRL = extensor carpi radialis longus; EDC = extensor digitorum communis; EMG = electromyography; EPB = extensor pollicis brevis; EPL = extensor pollicis longus; FCR = flexor carpi radialis; FDP = flexor digitorum profundus; FDS = flexor digitorum superficialis; FPL = flexor pollicis longus; ICSHT = International Classification for Surgery of the Hand in Tetraplegia; MHQ = Michigan Hand Questionnaire; MRC = Medical Research Council; PIN = posterior interosseous nerve; SCI = spinal cord injury; cervical spinal cord; clinical trial; disability; hand function; nerve transfer; spinal cord injury; tetraplegia; upper extremity.