Sensory Nerve Transfers in the Hand


Sensory Nerve Transfers in the Hand

Kirsty Usher Boyd and Susan E. Mackinnon

Following devastating nerve injuries to the upper extremity, patients are often left with insensate areas of the hand. Traditionally, tendon transfers and other reconstructive options would not be considered in the insensate hand. Sensory nerve transfers provide an excellent option for the restoration of critical sensation with a minimal donor-site deficit.1,2 Establishing sensation in these critical areas allows for a more complex reconstruction with significant improvement in hand function. In contrast to primary repair of a proximal nerve injury, which provides only protective sensation at best, distal sensory transfers can provide quality sensation via an end-to-end anastomosis, and protective sensation via an end-to-side anastomosis, which can minimize the sensory downgrading within the donor territory.2 For sensory transfers, a nerve branch that supplies noncritical sensation is sacrificed to restore critical digit sensation, such as the contact surfaces of the thumb and index fingers. In the management of complete brachial plexus injuries, sensation in these fingers can be restored by nerve transfer to the lateral cord contribution to the median nerve. Alternatively, transfer can be performed to the ulnar nerve in the upper arm to restore sensation to the ulnar hand and digits. Then, at a second stage, the nerve branch to the fourth web space can be directly transferred to the nerve that innervates the first web space to supply sensation to the thumb and index finger. As our knowledge of internal nerve topography and anatomy improves, and with the development of reverse end-to-side nerve transfers, the options for sensory nerve reconstruction in the hand have expanded.


  • Sensory nerve transfers are indicated for restoration of sensation to critical areas of the hand following iatrogenic nerve injury, traumatic nerve injury, and nerve defects following tumor excision.

  • Although end-to-side nerve transfers have been used in several clinical scenarios, experimental data have shown that, in the absence of some degree of injury to the donor nerve, only sensory axons traverse this repair. The axons transmitted as a result of this technique are not expected to provide much more than protective sensation but do so via a method that prevents noticeable downgrading within the donor territory. As a result, the authors favor this technique for noncritical regions of the hand that would benefit from protective sensation, including the dorsum of the hand and the third and fourth web spaces.

  • Restoring sensation to the radial side of the index finger and the ulnar side of the thumb are priorities in median nerve palsy.

  • The median nerve–innervated third web space (when preserved, as in an upper trunk brachial plexus injury), the ulnar nerve–innervated fourth web space, and the radial nerve–innervated dorsum of the hand are less critical sensory distributions and therefore represent the sources from which local axon donors can be recruited.

  • In a pure median nerve injury, the authors’ preferred strategy for sensory restoration involves transfer of the ulnar-innervated fourth web space common digital nerve to the median-innervated first web space (radial aspect of the index finger and digital nerves to the thumb) via a direct end-to-end repair. Secondarily, restoration of sensation to the donor fourth web space and median-innervated third web space can be achieved using an end-to-side technique as described previously. In this case, the ulnar digital nerve of the small finger is the axon source. This procedure can restore protective sensation to these digits without a noticeable downgrading of the ulnar sensation ( Table 6.1 ).

  • The sensory loss secondary to ulnar nerve injury involves a significant region of the palm. Nerve transfers for restoration of ulnar sensation involve mobilization of the median sensory contribution to the third web space with an end-to-end transfer to the proximally cut end of the ulnar palmar sensory component. This trades ulnar anesthesia for the less critical third web space numbness.

  • Protective sensation can be restored to the third web space and dorsal ulnar cutaneous distributions by use of an end-to-side coaptation with the remaining median sensory trunk.

  • Radial sensory nerve neurotization of the ulnar digital nerve to the thumb can be used to restore partial thumb sensation in cases of a combined proximal median and ulnar nerve injuries.

  • Sensory nerve transfers are indicated for proximal nerve injuries, where direct repair or nerve grafting will result in protective sensation at best.

  • Sensory nerve transfers can be performed in patients of all ages; however, results will be superior in younger patients, especially in children.

  • Sensory nerve transfers are not time dependent, since the sensory end organs can be reinnervated after many years. The results are better, however, if performed within 6 months of the injury.

Sensory nerve transfers in the forearm and hand

C5–C6 palsy

Median nerve deficit

Ulnar nerve deficit

Radial nerve deficit

Critical sensation end-to-end

Third to first web space

DCU to first webspace

Third web space to ulnar sensory

LABC to radial sensory

Noncritical sensation end-to-side

Preserving donor nerve deficits

Distal third web space to ulnar sensory

Distal DCU to first and second web spaces

Distal third web space to median sensory

Restoring recipient nerve deficits

Third web space to ulnar sensory

DCU to median sensory

Abbreviations: DCU, dorsal cutaneous branch of ulnar nerve; LABC, lateral antebrachial cutaneous nerve; median sensory, sensory component of median nerve; radial sensory, superficial branch of radial nerve; ulnar sensory, sensory component of ulnar nerve.


  • Sensory nerve transfers are contraindicated in life-threatening or limb-threatening upper extremity injuries.

  • Sensory nerve transfers are contraindicated in panplexus injuries, where no donor nerves are available.


  • Sensory nerve transfers do not require any preoperative imaging.

  • Clinical examination to confirm donor nerve availability and to document insensate areas is critical for preoperative planning.

  • Two-point discrimination (2PD), the ten test, and patient documentation on a hand diagram are useful adjuncts to document sensory deficits in the upper extremity and to evaluate outcomes following surgery. The ten test consists of applying light touch to the affected digit while simultaneously stroking the same region of the unaffected digit on the opposite hand. The normal digit is assigned a value of 10 for sensibility, and the patient is asked to grade the comparative sensation of the affected digit numerically.3

Relevant Anatomy

  • An extensive knowledge of the topography of both the ulnar and median nerves is required to perform sensory nerve transfers in the hand.

Median Nerve

  • The median nerve ( Fig. 6.1 ) lies between the flexor digitorum superficialis and the flexor digitorum profundus in the proximal forearm.

  • As it travels distally, it becomes more superficial and is located just deep to the palmaris longus at the wrist crease.

  • The nerve then enters into the carpal tunnel and travels distally into the hand.

  • In the forearm, the nerve branch to the pronator teres branches from the anterior aspect of the nerve and courses radially/laterally.

  • Additional, nerves branches to flexor carpi radialis, palmaris longus, and flexor digitorum superficialis branch from the ulnar/medial aspect of the nerve.

  • The anterior interosseous nerve (AIN) is the only branch from the radial aspect of the main nerve in the proximal forearm.

  • After these branches have departed from the main nerve, the majority of the nerve is sensory.

  • The only exception is an independent fascicular group that is oriented on the posterior radial aspect of the nerve, which will become the recurrent motor branch. This branch exits the main nerve variably, either before the transverse carpal ligament or within its substance.

  • The palmar cutaneous branch of the median nerve departs from the main nerve ~ 6 cm proximal to the wrist crease on the radial aspect of the nerve.

  • The internal topography of the median nerve is such that the third web space fascicles are located on the ulnar-most aspect of the nerve. The second web space fascicles are in the middle portion of the nerve. The first web space fascicles are found on the radial aspect of the nerve. The first web space fascicle includes fibers that innervate the radial aspect of the thumb.

Ulnar Nerve

  • The ulnar nerve ( Fig. 6.2 ) travels with the ulnar artery in the distal forearm and is located just deep to the flexor carpi ulnaris.

Internal topographical anatomy of the median nerve. Proximal forearm: The median nerve is composed of several motor and sensory fascicles. In the proximal forearm, the pronator teres fascicle is on the most anterior aspect, followed medially by the flexor carpi radialis (FCR) and palmaris longus (PL) fascicles. Further medially, the flexor digitorum superficialis (FDS) fascicular group is identified. This fascicular group usually includes two fascicles that correspond to two branch points to the FDS. The anterior interosseous fascicle is on the posterior aspect of the ulnar nerve and continues distally to become lateral/radial before its branch point. This fascicle includes a small sensory articular component to the wrist joint. It is important to acknowledge a thenar motor component within the sensory component. Distal forearm: The anterior interosseous nerve includes three fascicles: flexor pollicis longus (FPL), flexor digitorum profundus (FDP), and pronator quadratus (PQ)/articular. The FPL and FDP fascicles are large compared with PQ fascicle and have an anterior orientation. The median nerve includes a recurrent thenar fascicle that is found posterior and lateral. As the median nerve courses distally, the sensory fascicles are revealed to have three major groups: first web space and radial aspect of thumb, second web space, and third web space. These groups have lateral, middle, and medial orientations, respectively. The palmar cutaneous nerve branches from the anterior and lateral aspect of the median nerve. Hand: The recurrent thenar nerve branches from the posterior and lateral aspect of the median nerve to innervate the thenar musculature. The three sensory fascicular groups branch from the median nerve to innervate their appropriate sensory territories. The lateral branch includes the first web space and radial aspect of the thumb fascicles before its respective branch point.
Internal topographical anatomy of the ulnar nerve. The ulnar nerve has a distinct fascicular pattern as it courses distally from the forearm into the hand. The motor component of the ulnar nerve is found between the sensory component and the dorsal cutaneous fascicles. Distal to the dorsal cutaneous nerve branch point, the motor component is identified on the medial aspect of the ulnar nerve. This motor component branches from the ulnar nerve on its medial/ulnar aspect to become the deep motor branch and then dives deep to the leading edge of the hypothenar muscles to course around the hook of the hamate and innervate the intrinsic muscles. The sensory component of the ulnar nerve is a larger fascicular group compared with the motor component and innervates the ulnar aspect of the ring finger, the little finger, and the fourth web space.

  • In the forearm, the topography of the nerve from radial/lateral to ulnar/medial is sensory–motor–sensory. Natural cleavage planes exist between the fascicles dedicated to each modality. Often these cleavage planes can be identified by microvessels running longitudinally along the nerve. Alternatively, they can be identified by tapping a microforceps along the surface of the nerve and noting the area where the forceps will “fall” into the nerve.

  • The dorsal cutaneous branch of the ulnar nerve departs from the ulnar aspect of the main ulnar nerve at ~ 9 cm proximal to the wrist crease.

  • Distal to the branching point of the dorsal cutaneous branch, the internal topography of the remaining nerve is such that the radial 60% is sensory and the remaining ulnar 40% is motor.

  • The ulnar nerve branches further at the level of the leading edge of the hypothenar fascia. The superficial sensory branch travels medially. The deep motor branch dives under the fascia of the hypothenar muscles and wraps around the hook of the hamate to supply the intrinsic muscles of the hand.

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Jun 28, 2020 | Posted by in PHYSICAL MEDICINE & REHABILITATION | Comments Off on Sensory Nerve Transfers in the Hand
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