When a nerve injury is so severe that it results in the complete loss of muscle function or sensation, a nerve transfer can be performed. A nerve transfer involves taking nerves with less important roles and transferring them to restore function to the injured area.
Nerves are part of the “electrical wiring” system that sends signals between the brain and rest of the body telling the muscles to move and when to feel pain, pressure and temperature. The nerves are protected by a ring of tissue called axons. The nerves can be injured, cutting both the nerve and axon. If the nerve becomes severed, it can cause pain, numbness and tingling. In severe cases, the injury may result in the complete loss of muscle function or sensation.
“This usually happens in a situation where you have an acute injury, a laceration or a crash injury and the function of the muscles are not recovering adequately,” says Michael D. Riggenbach, M.D.
What Are the Treatment Options When Muscle Function and Sensation Are Lost as the Result of a Nerve Injury?
When all muscle function in lost, nerve transfer surgery may be recommended to restore muscle function and sensation to the injured area.
“A nerve transfer procedure is a generic term we use to describe a surgical procedure where you take a excessive nerve, or a redundant nerve, and transfer it a nerve that may not be functioning,” says Dr. Riggenbach.
The extra nerve is typically transferred from outside of the level of the nerve or outside the zone of the injury . Typically, a nerve transfer is highly successful, but it can can take between 12 and 18 months to fully recover.
“While you’re waiting for the nerve to recover, oftentimes we’ll enroll you in therapy with an occupational hand therapist,” explains Dr. Riggenbach. “[The therapist] works with your range of motion, strengthening and trying to recruit and incorporate different nerves and muscles that have been incorporated in the nerve transfer procedure so you’re not just waiting for the nerve to recover.”