Axillary nerve palsy is a condition marked by loss of movement or sensation in the shoulder area. There are so many reasons for axillary nerve palsy, but the prominent one is shoulder dislocation. Axillary nerve’s close proximity to the shoulder capsule puts it at risk for injury. It is also known as axillary neuropathy and mononeuropathy as it is a problem with just one nerve. Excessive stress or damage to the axillary nerve, which serves the deltoid muscles and skin of the shoulder, causes axillary nerve palsy. Dysfunction of the axillary nerve can occur in the myelin sheath which provides covering and protection of the nerve.
Different symptoms can be seen in patient with axillary nerve palsy. Some patients may complain that they cannot bend the arm at the elbow; however they may not have any other signs or symptoms of nerve palsy. The diagnosis is further complicated as the onset of the palsy is delayed and may even go unnoticed for one to two years post shoulder dislocation. To correctly identify the disease, it is important to understand the symptoms and the fact that different people have different symptoms.
In fact, axillary nerve palsy is a well recognized complication of a shoulder dislocation. The good news is it is often a low-grade injury which progresses to full recovery without intervention. But there are a small number of people who may have a high-impact injury so there is less likelihood for a full functional recovery without surgical exploration and reconstruction. Early identification of patients with high-grade injury leads to rapid referral to peripheral nerve centers allowing specialist observation or surgical intervention at an early stage; this in turn will result in maximum recovery.
Shoulder dislocation is a common injury associated with low- and high-impact trauma. As a result of this, axillary nerve may feel suppressed, leading to nerve damage. People who are active in sports and elderly individuals are two groups who are prone to shoulder dislocation and the resultant axillary nerve palsy. Risk of axillary nerve palsy increases with age. In those aged over 40 years, about 65% of total shoulder dislocations may cause axillary nerve palsy. Presence of fracture during shoulder dislocation doubles the risk of nerve palsy. You are at a higher risk for shoulder dislocation and the subsequent axillary nerve palsy if you:
- are an athlete or someone who participates in high-impact upper body activities
- perform repetitive tasks using your shoulder
- have a certain type of existing bone fracture
- improperly use supportive equipment such as crutches
Symptoms of axillary nerve palsy:
If you have axillary nerve palsy, you may have:
- feel numbness or tingling in the shoulder region
- have weakness in the shoulders
- have problems with normal physical activities, such as lifting your arms above your head
- have difficulty lifting objects
- reduced volume of the shoulder muscles
Diagnosis of axillary nerve palsy:
Your doctor will perform a physical examination and ask questions to figure out if you are having problem with your axillary nerve. Your pain sensitivity throughout the upper body will be checked by having you raise your arms. Your doctor may also ask about any prior trauma to the shoulder, deltoid muscles or anything else in the area of the axillary nerve. The doctor might also ask if you have used crutches or other support devices to see if there are any stresses that damaged the axillary nerve. Your doctor may recommend certain tests such as electromyography (EMG) to see the status of the axillary nerve. However, this test should not be done immediately post injury as the results will be normal. It need be done weeks after the initial injury and the onset of symptoms. Your doctor may recommend an MRI and an X-ray.
Treatment of axillary nerve palsy:
More often than not, recovery happens spontaneously and no treatment is needed. For mild to moderate axillary nerve palsy physical therapy and changes to daily routine may do the trick. Specific exercises can help muscle groups improve the nerve damage and preserve nerve function. If there are swelling and inflammation around the axillary nerve area, your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications to combat the swelling or inflammation that may be putting pressure on the axillary nerve.
In majority of cases, effective medical treatment can cure axillary nerve palsy. The outcome depends on the extent and nature of the nerve damage happened. At times and trapped nerve may need surgical repair to restore its normal function. Surgery is generally considered if there is no restoration of the nerve function even after six months of treatment. Some surgical options include nerve grafting, neurolysis or nerve reconstruction.
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Q & As on Axillary Nerve Palsy
1.What is the function of the axillary nerve?
The axillary nerve is also called the circumflex nerve. It is one of the five peripheral nerves that run through the shoulders. The axillary nerves originate at the neck at the brachial plexus.
The axillary nerve helps in the movement of the upper limbs near the shoulder. These nerves also provide sensations like pain, touch, and temperature to the shoulder area. This means that the axillary nerve functions both as motor and sensory nerves. It stimulates three muscles in the arm: the deltoid, the triceps’ long head, and teres minor.
2.What is axillary nerve palsy?
Axillary nerve palsy is a neurological condition wherein the axillary nerve is damaged due to a dislocation of the shoulder. This can be due to a direct injury to the nerve, long-term pressure affecting the nerve, or a shoulder injury. There is a loss of movement or sensation in the shoulder when this happens. Since the problem is localized and pertains to one nerve, it is also called axillary neuropathy or mononeuropathy. As the axillary nerve is located close to the shoulder capsule, the risk of injury is more.
3.What are the symptoms of axillary nerve palsy?
Patients suffering from axillary nerve palsy show different symptoms. Some people say they are unable to bend the arm at the elbow. They may not have any other symptoms which may delay the diagnosis. The other symptoms that lead to a proper diagnosis of the condition are:
- Numbness or a tingling sensation in the shoulder area for quite some time.
- Issues with normal activities involving the shoulder like lifting the arms above the head.
- Problem with lifting objects
- The volume of shoulder muscles is getting reduced.
In severe injuries, there may be a complete lack of movement or feeling in the arms too.
4.How do you know if you are at risk of axillary nerve palsy?
You are at risk of axillary nerve palsy, if you:
- are a sports person or an athlete who takes part in high-impact activities involving your upper body.
- perform repeated tasks using your shoulder.
- are aged and have a fracture of the bone in the shoulder.
- use support equipment like crutches in an improper way.
There is a higher risk of axillary nerve palsy in aged people since nearly 65% of shoulder dislocation in people over 40 years can result in this situation.
5.What is the treatment mechanism for axillary nerve palsy?
With effective treatment, axillary nerve palsy can be cured well. But, this also depends on the degree of damage caused. If the condition is mild to moderate certain physical therapy can help in recovery. Exercises that can restore nerve functions may be prescribed by the doctor. If swelling persists around the nerve area, anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed. If, even after 6 months of preliminary treatment, there is no improvement, then surgery may be prescribed. This can include nerve grafting, neurolysis, and nerve reconstruction.