The Median Nerve

The median nerve is a major peripheral nerve of the upper limb. In this article, we shall look at the applied anatomy of the nerve – its anatomical course, motor functions and cutaneous innervation. We shall also consider the clinical correlations of damage to the median nerve.

Nerve roots: C6 – T1.

Motor functions: Innervates the flexor muscles in the anterior compartment of the forearm (except the flexor carpi ulnaris and part of the flexor digitorum profundus, innervated by the ulnar nerve). Also supplies innervation to the thenar muscles and lateral two lumbricals in the hand.

Sensory functions: Gives rise to the palmar cutaneous branch, which innervates the lateral part of the palm, and the digital cutaneous branch, which innervates the lateral three and a half fingers on the anterior (palmar) surface of the hand.


Anatomical Course

Fig 1.0 - Anatomical course of the median nerve through the upper limb.

Fig 1.0 – Anatomical course of the median nerve through the upper limb.

The median nerve is derived from the medial and lateral cords of the brachial plexus. It contains fibres from all five roots (C5-T1).

After originating from the brachial plexus in the axilla, the median nerve descends down the arm, initially lateral to the brachial artery. Halfway down the arm, the nerve crosses over the brachial artery, and becomes situated medially. The median nerve enters the anterior compartment of the forearm via the cubital fossa.

In the forearm, the nerve travels between the flexor digitorum profundus and flexor digitorum superficialis muscles. The median nerve gives rise to two major branches in the forearm:

  • Anterior interosseous nerve - Supplies the deep muscles in the anterior forearm.
  • Palmar cutaneous nerve - Innervates the skin of the lateral palm.

(The functions of these nerves are explored in more detail later in the article).

The median nerve enters the hand via the carpal tunnel, where it terminates by dividing into two branches:

  • Recurrent branch – Innervates the thenar muscles.
  • Palmar digital branch – Innervates the palmar surface and fingertips of the lateral three and half digits. Also innervates the lateral two lumbrical muscles.

Clinical Relevance: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Fig 1.1 - Thenar muscle wasting, secondary to carpal tunnel syndrome.

Fig 1.1 – Thenar muscle wasting, secondary to carpal tunnel syndrome.

Compression of the median nerve within the carpal tunnel can cause carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). It is the most common mononeuropathy and can be caused by thickened ligaments and tendon sheaths. Its aetiology is, however, most often idiopathic. If left untreated, CTS can cause weakness and atrophy of the thenar muscles.

The patients history will comment on numbness, tingling and pain in the distribution of the median nerve. The pain will usually radiate to the forearm. Symptoms are often associated with waking the patient from their sleep and being worse in the mornings.

Tests for CTS can be performed during physical examination:

  • Tapping the nerve in the carpal tunnel to elicit pain in median nerve distribution (Tinel’s Sign)
  • Holding the wrist in flexion for 60 seconds to elicit numbness/pain in median nerve distribution (Phalen’s manoeuvre)

Treatment involves the use of a splint, holding the wrist in dorsiflexion overnight to relieve symptoms. If this is unsuccessful, corticosterioid injections into the carpal tunnel can be used. In severe case, surgical decompression of the carpal tunnel may be required.

Motor Functions

The median nerve innervates the majority of the muscles in the anterior forearm, and some intrinsic hand muscles.

The Anterior Forearm

In the forearm, the median nerve directly innervates muscles in the superficial and intermediate layers:

  • Superficial layer: Pronator teres, flexor carpi radialis and palmaris longus.
  • Intermediate layer: Flexor digitorm superficialis.

The median nerve also gives rise to the anterior interosseous nerve, which supplies the deep flexors:

  • Deep layer: Flexor digitorum profundus, flexor pollicis longus and pronator quadratus.

In general these muscles perform pronation of the forearm, flexion of the wrist and flexion of the digits of the hand.

Fig 1.2 - Deep flexor muscles of the anterior forearm.

Fig 1.2 – Deep flexor muscles of the anterior forearm.

The Hand

The median nerve innervates some of the muscles in the hand via two branches. The recurrent branch of the median nerve innervates the thenar muscles – muscles associated with movements of the thumb. The palmar digital branch innervates the lateral two lumbricals – these muscles perform flexion at the metacarpophalangeal joints of the index and middle fingers

(The remaining muscles in the anterior forearm and hand are innervated by the ulnar nerve).


Sensory Functions

The median nerve is responsible for the cutaneous innervation of part of the hand. This is achieved via two branches:

  • Palmar cutaneous branch – Arises in the forearm and travels into the hand. It innervates the lateral aspect of the palm. This nerve does not pass through the carpal tunnel, and is spared in carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Palmar digital cutaneous branch – Arises in the hand. Innervates the palmar surface and fingertips of the lateral three and half digits.
Fig 1.3 - Cutaneous innervation of the branches of the median nerve.
Fig 1.3 – Cutaneous innervation of the branches of the median nerve.

Clinical Relevance: Lesions of the Median Nerve

The median nerve is particularly vulnerable to damage at the elbow and wrist. In this section, we shall examine how such injuries can occur, and the sensori-motor deficits that can result.

Damaged at the Elbow

Fig 1.4 - Hand of Benediction, results from long term median nerve palsy.

Fig 1.4 – Hand of Benediction, results from long term median nerve palsy.

How it commonly occurs: Supracondylar fracture of the humerus.

Motor functions: The flexors and pronators in the forearm are paralysed, with the exception of the flexor carpi ulnaris and medial half of flexor digitorum profundus. The forearm constantly supinated, and flexion is weak (often accompanied by adduction, because of the pull of the flexor carpi ulnaris).

Flexion at the thumb is also prevented, as both the longus and brevis muscles are paralysed.

The lateral two lumbrical muscles are paralysed, and the patient will not be able to flex at the MCP joints or extend at IP joints of the index and middle fingers.

Sensory functions: Lack of sensation over the areas that the median nerve innervates.

Characteristic signs: The thenar eminence is wasted, due to atrophy of the thenar muscles. If patient tries to make a fist, only the little and ring fingers can flex completely. This results in a characteristic shape of the hand, known as hand of benediction.

Damaged at the Wrist

How it commonly occurs: Lacerations just proximal to the flexor reticaculum.

Motor functions: Thenar muscles paralysed, as are the lateral two lumbricals. This affects opposition of the thumb and flexion of the index and middle fingers.

Sensory functions: Same as an injury at the elbow.

Characteristic signs: Same as an injury at the elbow.

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