Upper Limb Nerve Transfer Surgery in Patients with Tetraplegia

Saad Javeed, Christopher F. Dibble, Jacob K. Greenberg, Justin K. Zhang, Jawad M. Khalifeh, Yikyung Park, Thomas J. Wilson, Eric L. Zager, Amir H. Faraji, Mark A. Mahan, Lynda J. Yang, Rajiv Midha, Neringa Juknis, Wilson Z. Ray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


IMPORTANCE: Cervical spinal cord injury (SCI) causes devastating loss of upper extremity function and independence. Nerve transfers are a promising approach to reanimate upper limbs; however, there remains a paucity of high-quality evidence supporting a clinical benefit for patients with tetraplegia.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the clinical utility of nerve transfers for reanimation of upper limb function in tetraplegia.

DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: In this prospective case series, adults with cervical SCI and upper extremity paralysis whose recovery plateaued were enrolled between September 1, 2015, and January 31, 2019. Data analysis was performed from August 2021 to February 2022.

INTERVENTIONS: Nerve transfers to reanimate upper extremity motor function with target reinnervation of elbow extension and hand grasp, pinch, and/or release.

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: The primary outcome was motor strength measured by Medical Research Council (MRC) grades 0 to 5. Secondary outcomes included Sollerman Hand Function Test (SHFT); Michigan Hand Outcome Questionnaire (MHQ); Disabilities of Arm, Shoulder, and Hand (DASH); and 36-Item Short Form Health Survey (SF-36) physical component summary (PCS) and mental component summary (MCS) scores. Outcomes were assessed up to 48 months postoperatively.

RESULTS: Twenty-two patients with tetraplegia (median age, 36 years [range, 18-76 years]; 21 male [95%]) underwent 60 nerve transfers on 35 upper limbs at a median time of 21 months (range, 6-142 months) after SCI. At final follow-up, upper limb motor strength improved significantly: median MRC grades were 3 (IQR, 2.5-4; P = .01) for triceps, with 70% of upper limbs gaining an MRC grade of 3 or higher for elbow extension; 4 (IQR, 2-4; P < .001) for finger extensors, with 79% of hands gaining an MRC grade of 3 or higher for finger extension; and 2 (IQR, 1-3; P < .001) for finger flexors, with 52% of hands gaining an MRC grade of 3 or higher for finger flexion. The secondary outcomes of SHFT, MHQ, DASH, and SF36-PCS scores improved beyond the established minimal clinically important difference. Both early (<12 months) and delayed (≥12 months) nerve transfers after SCI achieved comparable motor outcomes. Continual improvement in motor strength was observed in the finger flexors and extensors across the entire duration of follow-up.

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: In this prospective case series, nerve transfer surgery was associated with improvement of upper limb motor strength and functional independence in patients with tetraplegia. Nerve transfer is a promising intervention feasible in both subacute and chronic SCI.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E2243890
JournalJAMA Network Open
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 28 2022


  • Adult
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nerve Transfer
  • Quadriplegia/etiology
  • Upper Extremity/surgery
  • Hand/surgery
  • Fingers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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