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Prosthetic Hand Offers New Hope for Brachial Plexus Injury Sufferers

operating surgeons Scientists in Austria have discovered an effective way to treat a global brachial plexus injury – with a bionic prosthetic hand. The three men who received prosthetic surgery reportedly had improved hand function and less pain after receiving their prosthetics compared to patients who underwent traditional reconstructive techniques.

Results of this study offer promise to those suffering from severe brachial plexus injuries, either through an accident or as the result of a birth trauma.

Three patients receive prosthesis

Colleagues at the Christian Laboratory for Restoration of Extremity Function at the Medical University of Vienna chose three patients with global injury that included lower root avulsion. All three of the men had previously undergone traditional reconstructive procedures and suffered psychological harm as a result of their injuries. Treatment involved elective amputation of the affected hand and replacement with a mechatronic prosthesis. A permanent prosthesis was placed approximately six weeks after the original procedure.

Prior to elective amputation, patients spent nine months in cognitive training. First, they were taught to activate the muscles. Next, the patients were instructed on how to use electrical signals to control the prosthetic hand and they were given a hybrid hand to practice with before receiving their own prosthesis.

Within just three months after amputation, all three patients found their new prosthesis provided better hand function and less pain. Daily tasks like undoing buttons, pouring water and cutting food were possible for the first time since they suffered their injuries. This ability improved their quality of life as well as their hand function.

About brachial plexus injuries

Brachial plexus injuries are a result of damage to the brachial plexus nerves, the nerve network that originates in the neck region and extend down the arm to the hand. These injuries commonly occur as a result of a high-speed accident or a sports collision. In the case of the three patients in this study, all of the injuries were the result of motor vehicle and climbing accidents.

Brachial plexus injuries can also occur to newborns during the birth process. They are often the result of a birth complication known as shoulder dystocia, where the shoulder becomes stuck behind the mother’s pelvic bone in the birth canal. If too much force is placed on the shoulder, it can severely damage the brachial plexus nerve network, causing permanent, debilitating injury.

Skepticism over value of new treatment

While this recent study offers hope to those suffering brachial plexus damage, the cost and complexity of the prosthesis procedure has left some medical professionals skeptical. Steven Beldner, MD, co-director of the Hand Surgery Center at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City told Med Page Today that there was insufficient evidence at this time to show the time and cost of patient training would prove greater value than traditional methods for treating a brachial plexus injury.

For those who are injured through malpractice or negligence in the delivery room, legal help may be available. A lawsuit can help the victim of birth trauma pursue damages for medical expenses and other non-economic losses. If the prosthetic procedure becomes more widespread in the future, legal compensation may provide the money necessary to pay for this procedure as well.

At this time, bionic reconstruction has only been successfully carried out at the Vienna location, which means it could be some time before hospitals in other countries begin to use the technique. Researchers will also need to determine the long-term benefits of this new procedure, since patients in the study have only been evaluated for a few months to date. Compliance with prosthetics tends to decline over time, which may impact the overall value of this procedure in the long run.

  1. Med Page Today, ‘Bionic Hand’ Boosts Function after Brachial Plexus Injury,

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine, Brachial Plexus Injury,

  3. The Lancet, Bionic Reconstruction to Restore Hand Function after Brachial Plexus Injury: A Case Series of Three Patients,

  4. Science Daily, Bionic Reconstruction Lets Patients Use a Robotic Prosthetic Hand Controlled by the Mind,