A bundle of connected nerves in the neck region of your spinal cord sends branches down into your chest, shoulders, arms, and hands. This group of nerves is called the brachial plexus. These nerves control the motions of your wrists, hands, and arms, allowing you to raise your arm, type on your keyboard, or throw a baseball.
The brachial plexus nerves are sensory, too. For instance, they let you know that the pan you just grabbed with your hand is too hot to hold.
The brachial plexus can be injured in many different ways—from pressure, stress, or being stretched too far. The nerves may also be damaged by cancer or radiation treatment. Sometimes, brachial plexus injuries happen to babies during childbirth. In some cases, an overactive immune system can damage the plexus.
Brachial plexus injuries cut off all or parts of the communication between the spinal cord and the arm, wrist, and hand. This may mean that you can't move or feel parts of your arm or hand. Often, brachial plexus injuries also result in total loss of feeling in the area.
The severity of a brachial plexus injury varies. In some people, function and feeling returns to normal. Others may have lifelong disabilities because they can't use or feel a part of the arm.
Brachial plexus injuries are categorized by how badly the nerves are damaged:
Avulsion. The root of the nerve is completely separated from the spinal cord (the most severe type).
Neurapraxia. The nerves are stretched (the least severe type).
Rupture. Part of the nerve is actually torn.
Neuroma. Scar tissue forms on the stretched nerve as it fixes itself.
Brachial neuritis. This is a rare syndrome for which no cause can be identified. It's also called Parsonage-Turner syndrome.
Brachial plexus birth injury is when the brachial plexus gets stretched during childbirth. It is called Erb's palsy or Klumpke's palsy, depending on which part of the plexus is injured. Erb's palsy affects between 1 and 2 babies in every 1,000 births.