Bryan J. Pfister, Tessa Gordon, Joseph R. Loverde, Arshneel S. Kochar, Susan E. Mackinnon, and D. Kacy Cullen
Damage to the peripheral nervous system is surprisingly common and occurs primarily from trauma or a complication of surgery. Although recovery of nerve function occurs in many mild injuries, outcomes are often unsatisfactory following severe trauma. Nerve repair and regeneration presents unique clinical challenges and opportunities, and substantial contributions can be made through the informed application of biomedical engineering strategies. This article reviews the clinical presentations and classification of nerve injuries, in addition to the state of the art for surgical decision-making and repair strategies. This discussion presents specific challenges that must be addressed to realistically improve the treatment of nerve injuries and promote widespread recovery. In particular, nerve defects a few centimeters in length use a sensory nerve autograft as the standard technique; however, this approach is limited by the availability of donor nerve and comorbidity associated with additional surgery. Moreover, we currently have an inadequate ability to noninvasively assess the degree of nerve injury and to track axonal regeneration. As a result, wait-and-see surgical decisions can lead to undesirable and less successful “delayed” repair procedures. In this fight for time, degeneration of the distal nerve support structure and target progresses, ultimately blunting complete functional recovery. Thus, the most pressing challenges in peripheral nerve repair include the development of tissue-engineered nerve grafts that match or exceed the performance of autografts, the ability to noninvasively assess nerve damage and track axonal regeneration, and approaches to maintain the efficacy of the distal pathway and targets during the regenerative process. Biomedical engineering strategies can address these issues to substantially contribute at both the basic and applied levels, improving surgical management and functional recovery following severe peripheral nerve injury.
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