What Is Axillary Nerve Dysfunction?

It’s bad enough to break a leg and have to hobble around on crutches for weeks, but to experience nerve damage on top of that because of your crutches seems like overkill.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly one of the causes of axillary nerve dysfunction, and it’s important for people to recognize that, especially as you head into a season of inclement and icy weather which can lead to more falls and fractures.

Medically speaking, axillary nerve dysfunction results from damage to the axon or myelin sheath of the axillary nerve (also called the circumflex nerve). The axillary nerve is located in the armpit and runs down the upper arm, supplying sensation to the triceps brachii, deltoids, and one of the rotator cuff muscles (teres minor), as well as the skin covering the shoulder.

Symptoms of Axillary Nerve Dysfunction

Symptoms characteristic of axillary nerve damage include:

  • Shoulder weakness

  • Tingling, loss of feeling in the shoulder region

  • Limited range of motion with shoulder, i.e. raising your hand above your head

  • Trouble lifting heavier objects

  • Chronic shoulder pain

A type of peripheral neuropathy, axillary nerve dysfunction can result from a handful of actions. Improper use of crutches or other mobility aids which support the underarm area can place prolonged pressure on the nerve and damage the central nerve cell (axon) or the protective coating around the nerve.

Blunt force trauma to the nerve, fracture of the humerus (upper arm bone), a severe infection, chronic nerve inflammation, and shoulder dislocation can also negatively impact the health of the axillary nerve.

When a shoulder or upper arm injury actually narrows the tunnel through which the axillary nerve extends, this can lead to entrapment, another term for the undue pressure being placed on the axillary nerve leading to pain and damage.

While not overly common, this type of mononeuropathy is more likely to happen to people who participate in high-impact upper body sports like football, who require the use of supportive aids like crutches, or who engage the shoulder in the same repetitive motion over an extended period of time.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you are concerned about potential nerve damage in or around your shoulder, seek a medical evaluation right away. Doctors will administer a physical exam and discuss medical history with you including past shoulder injuries.

They may even issue imaging (MRI) or nerve (electromyography) tests to gain a deeper understanding of your pain and sensitivity levels in the shoulder and upper arm.

Depending on the root cause of your axillary nerve dysfunction, your customized treatment plan may vary from another patient’s. Inflammation which is placing too much pressure on the nerve may be treated with anti-inflammatory medicines, while severe pain may require a prescription for narcotics.

Physical therapy and exercises which stretch and strengthen the muscles around the shoulder may also help your body compensate for the nerve damage or preserve nerve function to begin with. In dire cases, surgical intervention will be required to help repair the nerve or surrounding tissues.

How to Prevent Axillary Nerve Dysfunction

Preventing axillary nerve dysfunction is possible, especially with proper education and training. For example, if you incur a lower leg injury like a torn ACL or severe ankle sprain which requires the temporary use of crutches, learning proper form and body mechanics for using crutches can ensure you don’t bear all your weight on your armpits and cause nerve damage. Crutch pads which add cushioning to the top part of the crutch which sits under your arm can also provide relief – visit this link for more info: https://www.vivehealth.com/blogs/resources/best-pads-for-crutches

Jobs and sports which require repeated shoulder motion or impact to the shoulder region of the body should be limited and your participation re-evaluated to help prevent nerve dysfunction or other shoulder injuries.

Any loss of feeling (numbness), tingling, pain, or sudden loss of motion range in the shoulder should be a good indicator that you need to see a doctor right away. Quick, proactive thinking can potentially help you get treatment before permanent nerve damage occurs.

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