A 12-year operative experience with 171 consecutive patients with severe brachial plexus lesions who had at least 1 1/2 years of follow-up review is analyzed. Selection for and timing of operation was helped by categorization of each individual plexus element as "completely" or "incompletely" injured and as "in continuity" or "not in continuity." Results for each element could be given a single grade by a system which defined that element's proximal and distal input. For most lesions in continuity, an operative delay of several months is advocated so that intraoperative electrical evaluation can be used. Thus, in 282 gunshot wounded and stretch-injured elements of which 210 were thought to be clinically complete, 63 were spared resection because of nerve action potentials (NAP's) found at intraoperative testing, and 57 recovered function with only neurolysis. Elements resected (120) were confirmed as neurotmetic both by intraoperative electrical and subsequent histological studies. Acceptable results were achieved in 16 of 24 sutures, in 43 of 89 grafts, and in each of seven split repairs. Upper trunk and lateral and posterior cord elements fared better than lower trunk and medial cord lesions unless the latter were shown, with evidence of NAP's, to be regenerating and could be spared resection. Some stretched elements could, however, not be repaired, even though an attempt was made to exclude such cases from operation. Lacerations to the brachial plexus where continuity is lost are best repaired primarily if the injury is sharp; in this series, 14 of 18 elements having such repair recovered, whereas in 37 elements with secondary repair, grafts were often necessary and only 50% recovered function. Although associated with skin lacerations, 17 elements with complete loss were in continuity, and six of these were shown to be regenerating and were not resected. Despite intraneural location, large size, and prior operation, many benign tumors (including neurofibromas) can be removed without significant loss by use of the surgical loupes or microscope and repetitive NAP recording. Surgery for selected brachial plexus lesions is worthwhile.
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