Reverse end-to-side (RETS) nerve transfer has become increasingly popular in patients with severe high ulnar nerve injury, but the reported outcomes have been inconsistent.
To evaluate the “babysitting effect,” we compared outcomes after anterior interosseous nerve RETS transfer with nerve decompression alone. To evaluate the source of regenerating axons, a group with end-to-end (ETE) transfer was used for comparisons.
Electrophysiology measures were used to quantify the regeneration of anterior interosseous nerve (AIN) and ulnar nerve fibers while functional recovery was evaluated using key pinch and Semmes-Weinstein monofilaments. The subjects were followed postsurgically for 3 years.
Sixty-two subjects (RETS = 25, ETE = 16, and decompression = 21) from 4 centers in Western Canada were enrolled. All subjects with severe ulnar nerve injury had nerve compression at the elbow except 10 in the ETE group had nerve laceration or traction injury. Postsurgically, no reinnervation from the AIN to the abductor digiti minimi muscles was seen in any of the RETS subjects. Although there was no significant improvement in compound muscle action potentials amplitudes and pressure detection thresholds in the decompression and RETS group, key pinch strength significantly improved in the RETS group (P < .05).
The results from published clinical trials are conflicting in part because crossover regeneration from the donor nerve has never been measured. Unlike those with ETE nerve transfers, we found that there was no crossover regeneration in the RETS group. The extent of reinnervation was also no different from decompression surgery alone. Based on these findings, the justifications for this surgical technique need to be carefully re-evaluated.