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Axillary nerve dysfunction

Definition

Axillary nerve dysfunction is nerve damage that leads to a loss of movement or sensation in the shoulder.

Alternative Names

Neuropathy - axillary nerve

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Axillary nerve dysfunction is a form of peripheral neuropathy. It occurs when there is damage to the axillary nerve. This is the nerve that helps control the deltoid muscles of the shoulder and the skin around it. A problem with just one nerve, such as the axillary nerve, is called mononeuropathy.

The usual causes are:

  • Direct injury
  • Long-term pressure on the nerve
  • Pressure on the nerve from nearby body structures
  • Shoulder injury

Entrapment creates pressure on the nerve where it passes through a narrow structure.

The damage can destroy the myelin sheath that covers the nerve or part of the nerve cell (the axon). Damage of either type reduces or prevents the movement of signals through the nerve.

Conditions that can lead to axillary nerve dysfunction include:

  • Body-wide (systemic) disorders that cause nerve inflammation
  • Deep infection
  • Fracture of the upper arm bone (humerus)
  • Pressure from casts or splints
  • Improper use of crutches
  • Shoulder dislocation

In some cases, no cause can be found.

Symptoms

  • Numbness over part of the outer shoulder
  • Shoulder weakness, especially when lifting the arm up and away from the body

Signs and tests

Your health care provider will examine your neck, arm, and shoulder. Weakness of the shoulder can cause difficulty moving your arm.

The deltoid muscle of the shoulder may show signs of muscle atrophy.

Tests that may be used to check axillary nerve dysfunction include:

  • EMG and nerve conduction tests -- will be normal right after the injury and should be done several weeks after the injury or symptoms start
  • MRI or x-rays of the shoulder

Treatment

Depending on the cause of the nerve disorder, some people do not need treatment. They get better on their own. The rate of recovery can be different for everyone. It can take many months to recover.

Anti-inflammatory medications may be given if you have:

  • Sudden symptoms
  • Small changes in sensation or movement
  • No history of injury to the area
  • No signs of nerve damage

These medicines reduce swelling and pressure on the nerve. They may be injected directly into the area or taken by mouth.

Other medicines include:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicines may be helpful for mild pain (neuralgia).
  • Other medicines may reduce stabbing pain.
  • Opiate pain relievers  may be needed to control severe pain.

If your symptoms continue or get worse, you may need surgery. If a trapped nerve is causing your symptoms, surgery to release the nerve may help you feel better.

Physical therapy can help maintain muscle strength. Job changes, muscle retraining, or other forms of therapy may be recommended.

Expectations (prognosis)

It may be possible to make a full recovery if the cause of the axillary nerve dysfunction can be identified and successfully treated.

Complications

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have symptoms of axillary nerve dysfunction. Early diagnosis and treatment increase the chance of controlling symptoms.

Prevention

Preventive measures vary, depending on the cause. Avoid putting pressure on the underarm area for a long periods. Make sure casts, splints, and other appliances fit properly. When you use crutches, learn how to avoid putting pressure on the underarm.

References

Steinmann SP, Spinner RJ. Nerve problems about the shoulder. In: Rockwood CA, Matsen FA III, Wirth MA, et al., eds. The Shoulder. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2009:chap 27.

Review Date: 2/27/2013
Reviewed By: Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, Department of Neurosurgery, Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles and Department of Anatomy, University of California, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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