Brachial Plexus Neuropathies During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Retrospective Case Series of 15 Patients in Critical Care

Phys Ther. 2021 Jan 4;101(1):pzaa191. doi: 10.1093/ptj/pzaa191.


Objective: The use of the prone position to treat patients with COVID-19 pneumonia who are critically ill and mechanically ventilated is well documented. This case series reports the location, severity, and prevalence of focal peripheral nerve injuries involving the upper limb identified in an acute COVID-19 rehabilitation setting. The purpose of this study was to report observations and to explore the challenges in assessing these patients.

Methods: Participants were patients with suspected peripheral nerve injuries following discharge from COVID-19 critical care who were referred to the peripheral nerve injury multidisciplinary team. Data were collected retrospectively on what peripheral neuropathies were observed, with reference to relevant investigation findings and proning history.

Results: During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom, 256 patients were admitted to COVID-19 critical care of Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, United Kingdom. From March to June 2020, a total of 114 patients required prone ventilation. In this subgroup, a total of 15 patients were identified with clinical findings of peripheral nerve injuries within the upper limb. In total, 30 anatomical nerve injuries were recorded. The most commonly affected nerve was the ulnar nerve (12/30) followed by the cords of the brachial plexus (10/30). Neuropathic pain and muscle wasting were identified, signifying a high-grade nerve injury.

Conclusion: Peripheral nerve injuries can be associated with prone positioning on intensive care units, although other mechanisms, such as those of a neuroinflammatory nature, cannot be excluded.

Impact: Proning-related upper limb peripheral nerve injuries are not discussed widely in the literature and could be an area of further consideration when critical care units review their proning protocols. Physical therapists treating these patients play a key part in the management of this group of patients by optimizing the positioning of patients during proning, making early identification of peripheral nerve injuries, providing rehabilitation interventions, and referring to specialist services if necessary.

Lay summary: During the COVID-19 pandemic, patients who are very ill can be placed for long periods of time on their stomach to improve their chances of survival. The potential consequences of prolonged time in this position are weakness and pain in the arms due to potential nerve damage. There are some recommended treatments to take care of these problems.

Keywords: Anatomy: Upper Extremity: Arm; Anatomy: Upper Extremity: Hand; Anatomy: Upper Extremity: Shoulder; Peripheral Nervous System Diseases.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Brachial Plexus / injuries*
  • Brachial Plexus Neuropathies / epidemiology*
  • COVID-19 / therapy*
  • Critical Care*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Positioning
  • Peripheral Nerve Injuries / epidemiology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • United Kingdom
  • Upper Extremity / innervation