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Brachial Neuritis

What is brachial neuritis?

Brachial neuritis is a form of peripheral neuropathy that affects the chest, shoulder, arm and hand. Peripheral neuropathy is a disease characterized by pain or loss of function in the nerves that carry signals to and from the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system) to other parts of the body. It is a fairly rare condition.

Brachial neuritis is also referred to as brachial neuropathy or a brachial plexus injury. When acute brachial neuritis occurs, the damage to the brachial nerves comes on suddenly and unexpectedly, without being related to any other injury or physical condition. This is also called Parsonage-Turner syndrome or neuralgic amyotrophy.

Brachial neuritis affects mainly the lower nerves of the brachial plexus, in the arm and hand. The brachial plexus is a bundle of nerves that travels from the spinal cord to the chest, shoulder, arms, and hands. It usually affects just one side of the body, but it can involve other nerves and other parts of the body, as well. Here is a brief overview of the different types of brachial plexus injuries:

  • Acute brachial neuritis. This type of brachial neuritis occurs unexpectedly on its own. It is characterized by sharp, severe pain in the nerves of the brachial plexus, followed by weakness or numbness. The cause of acute brachial neuritis is unknown.
  • Brachial plexus injury. Some people have pain and loss of function to the brachial plexus as the result of another type of injury. For example, babies can injure the brachial plexus when they pass through the birth canal during labor.

What causes brachial neuritis?

In brachial neuritis, pain, loss of function, and other damage occurs in the brachial plexus, the bundle of nerves that travels from the spinal cord to the chest, shoulder, arms, and hands.

The cause of brachial neuritis is unknown. In some instances, the symptoms of brachial neuritis seem to be related to another illness or injury. At other times, however, the pain and weakness associated with the disease occur without any explanation. 

What are the symptoms of brachial neuritis?

Symptoms of brachial neuritis include:

  • Severe pain in the upper arm or shoulder
  • Pain usually affecting just one side of the body
  • After a few hours or days, the pain transitions to weakness, limpness, or paralysis in the muscles of the affected arm or shoulder
  • Lack of muscle control in the shoulder or arm
  • Lack of sensation or feeling in the shoulder or arm

Symptoms typically resolve slowly over the course of a few months or a few years

How is brachial neuritis diagnosed?

If any of the symptoms are noted, the location of the symptoms in the chest, shoulder, upper back, or upper arm area is an indication that brachial neuritis is the cause.

If the health care provider suspects that brachial neuritis might be the cause of your pain, he or she may also perform electromyography or nerve conduction studies to determine the specific nature and extent of the nerve damage. If the health care provider suspects that your brachial pain might be related to another type of medical condition or illness, he or she may do more tests.

How is brachial neuritis treated?

In some cases, acute brachial neuritis will resolve on its own over time. Your health care provider may give you corticosteroids for the pain in the meantime. If the brachial neuritis is the result of an injury and surgery can be performed in a timely fashion, then surgery might be used to repair the nerves of the brachial plexus region.

Can brachial neuritis be prevented?

Experts don’t know how to prevent brachial neuritis. The best thing you can do is avoid arm and shoulder injuries. But in a lot of cases, the cause of brachial neuritis is unknown, and there is little you can do to prevent it.

Living with brachial neuritis

In many cases, brachial neuritis will resolve on its own after a few months. The best thing you can do is be patient, and follow the instructions of your health care provider to manage the severe pain of brachial neuritis.

Avoiding cigarettes and alcohol, eating a healthy diet, and getting regular exercises can help many with various types of peripheral neuropathy, and brachial neuritis is no exception. In many cases, working with a physical therapist can help improve the condition.

Relaxation techniques such as yoga may also help ease emotional and physical symptoms by helping you relieve stress naturally. 

Key points about brachial neuritis

  • Brachial neuritis is a fairly rare condition that causes pain and loss of muscle control in your shoulder or arm.
  • Medications and therapy can help reduce the pain and improve the condition.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Weisbart, Ed, M.D.
Online Medical Reviewer: Ziegler, Olivia Walton, MS, PA-C
Date Last Reviewed: 11/20/2013
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