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What is a Nerve Injury?

The nervous system is the body’s “electrical wiring. This network of nerves carries messages from the brain to the rest of the body and is responsible for all feeling and movement. Nerves are delicate structures that resemble an electrical cable. A thin layer of tissue covers the fibers, or axons. Axons are clumped into bundles, much like miniature cables within a larger cable.

Pressure, cuts, stretching, injury, or disease can damage a nerve. If the cable and fibers are cut (severed), signals are stopped, causing loss of feeling or function. Pressure or stretching injuries may damage some of the fibers, even if the cable stays whole. When this happens, the fibers farthest from the brain often die. However, new fibers may grow in over time, restoring function and feeling.

Nerve injuries happen most often to the hands, arms, legs, and feet.

Symptoms

Symptoms of nerve damage or injury may include:

  • A feeling of “pins and needles”
  • Loss of feeling
  • Loss of function

When to See a Doctor

See a doctor right away of you have had a severe blow, cut, or accident that causes any loss of feeling or function.

Causes

Nerve injuries can be caused by pressure, cuts, or stretching, such as from an automobile or industrial accident. They can also be caused by a disease (such as diabetes).

Diagnosis and Tests

To diagnose an injury, your healthcare provider will examine the injury and check for feeling and ability to move or respond. In addition:

  • Nerve conduction studies or electromyography [ih-lek-troh-my-AH-graf-ee] may be used to determine the extent of the injury. These studies are usually done by a neurologist – a doctor who specializes in finding and treating nerve problems.
  • Imaging studies, such as an MRI, may be needed to locate the source of the problem.

Treatments

In some cases, treatment may just be watching and waiting for the nerve to recover. In other cases, the nerve may need to be fixed with surgery to:

  • Reconnect the ends of the protective covering, if there is enough healthy tissue to do so, so that new fibers can grow inside
  • Sew an unnecessary section of nerve from another place in your body onto a damaged nerve to form a “bridge”
  • Remove scars or injured tissue

Prevention

Some accidents can’t be avoided. In general:

  • Follow instructions on the safe use of any tools or machinery. Even simple tools (such as a knife) can cause serious injuries.
  • Use the recommended safety gear (glasses, gloves, boots, etc.)
  • Drive defensively and always use your seatbelt.

If you have a medical condition that may cause nerve injuries, work with your healthcare team to make a plan that will help you stay healthy.