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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

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

Symptoms may include any of the following:

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

Exams 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. The problem gets better on its own. The rate of recovery can be different for everyone. It can take many months to recover.

Anti-inflammatory medicines 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.

Outlook (Prognosis)

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

Possible Complications

Complications may include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

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 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.

Taylor KF. Nerve entrapment. In: In: Miller MD, Thompson SR, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine: Principles and Practice. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 58.

Review Date:2/3/2015
Reviewed By:Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, SUNY Stony Brook, School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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Outcome Data

No data available for this condition/procedure.

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