Incidence of clinically evident isolated axillary nerve injury in 869 primary anatomic and reverse total shoulder arthroplasties without routine identification of the axillary nerve

Christa L. LiBrizzi, Jorge Rojas, Jacob Joseph, Alexander Bitzer, Edward G. McFarland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: It has been suggested that, during primary shoulder arthroplasty, surgeons should identify the axillary nerve through direct visualization, palpation, or the “tug test” to prevent iatrogenic nerve injury. Our goal was to document the rate of isolated axillary nerve injury (IANI) in patients who had undergone primary anatomic total shoulder arthroplasty (TSA) or reverse total shoulder arthroplasty (RTSA) without routine identification of the axillary nerve. Methods: Data on 869 cases of primary shoulder arthroplasty (338 TSAs and 531 RTSAs) performed by 1 surgeon between 2003 and 2017 were reviewed. Neither the tug test nor identification of the axillary nerve through palpation or visualization was used in any case. The primary outcome was new IANI documented within 3 months after arthroplasty. The frequency of IANI was summarized using point estimates and 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Results: Six cases met the criteria for IANI. The overall incidence of IANI was 0.7% (95% CI, 0.3%-1.4%). The incidence of IANI was 0.3% (95% CI, 0%-1.6%) after TSA and 0.9% (95% CI, 0.3%-2.1%) after RTSA. All IANIs were cases of neurapraxia, and all patients had experienced complete neurologic recovery at last follow-up. Conclusion: Complete, permanent IANI resulting from direct surgical trauma during primary shoulder arthroplasty can be avoided without using the tug test or routine identification of the nerve. A low incidence of partial temporary IANI can be expected, which may be related to indirect traction injuries.


  • Axillary nerve lesion
  • Case Series
  • Level IV
  • Treatment Study
  • anatomic total shoulder arthroplasty
  • complications
  • neurologic complications
  • primary shoulder arthroplasty
  • reverse total shoulder arthroplasty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine

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