The brachial plexus is like an interchange on the highway, but for the nerves starting in the cervical spine that will become the main nerves of your arm. Much like the sciatic nerve of your legs, impingement upon these nerves, or trauma to them, can cause a variety of symptoms including pain, so it’s good to know what to watch out for!
How Do I Know?
While a variety of different issues can cause problems down the nerves of the arm, including things like thoracic outlet syndrome, cervical disc issues, and cervical stenosis, most of these issues will share some of the same symptoms. You will likely notice that you have decreased sensation, even as far as complete numbness, running down your arm, possibly even into your finger-tips. You may notice that all of the muscles of that arm are suddenly weaker than they used to be, and you may be more prone to dropping things that your hand tells you are perfectly secure. Fine motor tasks like buttoning your clothes and writing may become far more difficult or clumsy.
What sets a brachial plexus injury apart from the other syndromes that affect these nerves Is your history. An injury like this is often preceded by a strong pull on the affected arm, for example in a child who suddenly falls while holding an adult’s hand and yanks hard to pull themselves up. Car accidents or blunt force trauma to the shoulder may also cause these injuries.
What Should I Do?
If your history and symptoms match these issues, the first thing to do is contact your physician. While in some cases your nerves can heal over time, more severe cases may require a variety of medical interventions in order to allow the nerves to communicate again. There is no great at home diagnosis tool to tell how severe your injury is, but your doctors will be able to set you on the right path!
Regardless of medical intervention, your strength and fine motor functions will often need some help along to return to your previous level. While physical and occupational therapists are happy to help in these cases there is also a lot you can do at home to help yourself along!
A therapist’s favorite word, in the cases of neuromuscular retraining, you can’t get by without it! Nerves are astoundingly plastic, the word we use to describe their adaptability to learning and affecting new or learned functions. That plasticity is best brought about with repetition, essentially what everyone always told you: practice makes perfect!
Start slow and deliberate with your fine motor tasks, and enlarge them as you are able to help your body adapt. For issues buttoning clothes, start with larger buttons and holes, and progress smaller as this gets easier. In handwriting, begin again with writing large on lined paper to help the nerves relearn their spacing and shapes. You may often feel like you are back to childhood games, but we played them for a reason: they’re a great way to learn!
Your strength progresses similarly: start with the movements your body is able to perform with light resistance over large sets of repetitions, approaching 20-30, and but perform those movements in the mirror with the other side. Concentrate most on making sure the affected movement looks exactly like the other side, and progress over time into more complex exercises and heavier weights.
And if you ever run out of ideas, as always feel free to ask!