Washington University physician Michael Bavlsik, MD, shows surgeon Ida Fox, MD, how he can now grip an otoscope, which he uses in his practice. He is one of nine quadriplegic patients who regained some hand and arm movement after nerve-transfer surgery.

Washington University physician Michael Bavlsik, MD, shows surgeon Ida Fox, MD, how he can now grip an otoscope, which he uses in his practice. He is one of nine quadriplegic patients who regained some hand and arm movement after nerve-transfer surgery.

Nerve transfer can restore hand and arm movement to quadriplegic patients, according to a study in the October issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

The surgeons redirected peripheral nerves in a quadriplegic’s arms and hands by connecting healthy nerves to the injured nerves in nine quadriplegic patients with spinal cord injuries in the neck. Essentially, the new nerve network reintroduces conversation between the brain and the muscles that allows patients, once again, to accomplish tasks that foster independence, such as feeding themselves or writing with a pen.

Every patient in the study reported improved hand and arm function.

“Physically, nerve-transfer surgery provides incremental improvements in hand and arm function. However, psychologically, these small steps are huge for a patient’s quality of life,” says the study’s lead author, Ida K. Fox, MD, assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, in a news release.“One of my patients told me he was able to pick up a noodle off his chest when he dropped it. Before the surgery, he couldn’t move his fingers. It meant a lot for him to clean off that noodle without anyone helping him.”

Ultimately, medical professionals hope to discover a way to restore full movement to the estimated 250,000 people in the United States living with spinal cord injuries. More than half of such injuries involve the neck. However, until a cure is found, progress in regaining basic independence in routine tasks is important.

Indeed, one of the most humbling effects of spine damage is the inability to manage bladder or bowel functions. “People with spinal cord injuries cannot control those functions because their brains can’t talk to the nerves in the lower body, and they often can’t feel the need to go to the bathroom,” says Fox, who performs surgeries at Barnes-Jewish Hospital​. “Patients often can’t insert a catheter to empty their bladders or insert a suppository for bowel movement, and have to rely on help from a caregiver. But after this surgery, one of my patients was able to independently catheterize himself, which he hadn’t been able to do since his accident over a decade ago. This boost in privacy and personal space restores a significant amount of dignity.”

Surgeons at Washington University pioneered nerve-transfer surgery. Developed about 25 years ago by the study’s senior author, Susan E. Mackinnon, MD, director of the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the School of Medicine, the technique initially was performed to restore movement in the extremities of patients who had injured peripheral nerves and lost the ability to move a foot or an arm.

But in the past 5 years, the same technique has been used to restore limited movement to patients with spinal cord injuries. Quadriplegics from Colorado, Michigan, and Arizona, among other states, have traveled to St Louis for the surgery. The operation can be performed even years after a spinal cord injury. It usually takes 4 hours, and most patients go home the next morning.

Since surgeons connect working nerves in the upper arms to a patient’s damaged nerves in their arms and hands, the technique targets patients with injuries at the C6 or C7 vertebra, the lowest bones in the neck. It typically does not help patients who have lost all arm function due to higher injuries in vertebrae C1 through C5.

Bypassing the spinal cord, surgeons reroute healthy nerves sitting above the injury site, usually in the shoulders or elbows, to paralyzed nerves in the hand or arm. Once a connection is established, patients undergo extensive physical therapy to train the brain to recognize the new nerve signals, a process that takes about 6 to 18 months.

Nerve-transfer surgery restored physician Michael Bavlsik’s ability to grip utensils, pens, medical tools and other items with his left hand.

Nerve-transfer surgery restored physician Michael Bavlsik’s ability to grip utensils, pens, medical tools, and other items with his left hand.

“The gains after nerve-transfer surgery are not instantaneous,” says Mackinnon, director of the School of Medicine’s Center for Nerve Injury and Paralysis, and the Sydney M. Shoenberg, Jr, and Robert H. Shoenberg Professor of Surgery. “But once established, the surgery’s benefits provide a way to let individuals with spinal cord injuries improve their daily lives.”

The procedure allowed a St Louis primary care physician and a father of eight to feed himself with a fork, write with a pen, look into patients’ ears with an otoscope, and drive his kids to activities. In 2012, Michael D. Bavlsik, MD, lost the ability to use his left hand and extend his left elbow while he, his son, and other Boy Scouts were on a trip in Minnesota and his van collided with a boat and a trailer. None of the boys was severely injured, but the accident left Bavlsik a quadriplegic. He now moves about in a motorized wheelchair.