Nerve Transfer Surgery Relieves Pain, Restores Function Lost to Nerve Damage

Duke Neurosurgeon Explains How This Surgery Could Benefit You

By Lindsay Kenton and Morgan deBlecourt
February 11, 2022
A closeup of an older woman's hands

If you experience chronic pain, numbness, or weakness in your spine, arms, or legs due to nerve damage, a procedure called nerve transfer surgery may improve or restore your ability to function and reduce your pain. The procedure, a type of peripheral nerve reconstruction surgery, repairs the nerves that run down your arms, legs, and other parts of your body. According to Brandon W. Smith, MD, a Duke neurosurgeon and spine surgeon who specializes in nerve transfer surgery, this procedure is helping more people with pain, numbness, and weakness related to nerve problems like peripheral neuropathy, nerve palsy, and brachial plexus injuries.

What is nerve transfer surgery?

Nerve transfer surgery aims to restore feeling and mobility in the limbs by replacing damaged nerves with functioning nerves from another part of your body. Nerve transfer surgery can help you reach your functional goals, and research shows that many nerve injuries can be repaired with this procedure.

Could this surgery help me?

According to Dr. Smith, even small gains can mean a lot for someone with nerve damage and weakness in a specific area of the body. It’s important to consider your individual needs and what you’re willing to trade. For example, if you like to sew, then you may not want to transfer a nerve that affects your pointer finger and thumb. However, you might be willing to give up the nerve that goes to your pinky instead.

What is unique about nerve transfer surgery at Duke?

Duke’s team approach to care joins experts in neurology, neurosurgery, orthopaedics, and plastic surgery to evaluate and treat you, so we are prepared to help with any type of nerve problem. The earlier you are referred to Duke, the better your potential outcomes can be, Dr. Smith said.

What conditions can nerve transfer surgery treat?

The list of conditions treated with nerve transfer surgery has grown rapidly, Dr. Smith said. It includes spinal cord injuries, stroke, and limb spasticity. Nerve transfers are also being used to help people with C5 palsy -- a complication of spine surgery that causes shoulder paralysis. Nerve transfer surgery might be an option for people whose symptoms haven’t improved with other treatments.