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The phrenic nerve starts as a single nerve in the neck and splits into two parts, designated left and right. It is one of the most important nerves in the body. The phrenic nerve plays a critical role in breathing, as it sends signals between the brain and the diaphragm. When the diaphragm moves, it pushes air in and out of the lungs.
The nerves receive signals automatically from the brain to keep the body breathing. We don’t have to think to ourselves to take every breath. But we do have some control over the movement of our diaphragm, like when we decide to hold our breath or take deliberate, deep breaths. You don’t think of this as a problem that would be associated with a work injury, but we are seeing it more and more.
Since the phrenic nerve is so critical to the work of the human body, an injury to the nerve can cause serious medical problems. The left and right nerves go down each side of the body, very close to the heart and lungs, so any problems in these two organs can negatively affect the functioning of the phrenic nerve and impair breathing.
Phrenic nerve damage is typically caused by:
- A spinal cord injury
- Physical trauma or neck injury from a motor vehicle accident
- A physical assault
- Trauma caused during a surgical procedure, most commonly cardiac or abdominal surgeries
The symptoms of phrenic nerve damage vary depending on whether one or both of the two nerves are damaged. If only the left or right nerve is damaged, a person may continue to breathe normally and experience no problems. If both the left and right nerves are damaged, one may go into respiratory failure, which can be life-threatening. Diaphragm paralysis is the most severe symptom as breathing is extremely labored and artificial respiration is required. Difficulty with hiccups is a less severe symptom. An irritated phrenic nerve can activate the hiccup reflex and make the diaphragm contract abnormally.
Restoring normal breathing is often accomplished with a breathing pacemaker, which takes over control of the diaphragm from the damaged phrenic nerve. The pacemaker electrodes are implanted around the phrenic nerve, the device activates the electrodes and contracts the diaphragm, restoring breathing.
If you are suffering from phrenic nerve damage due to a work-related injury, you are likely entitled to workers’ compensation. For example, if you were driving for your job, and a car accident caused the nerve damage, or if you had trauma caused by surgery for a work injury, your medical care and expenses should be covered by your employer’s insurance and you should be paid for all of your time off work and also get a settlement.
If you have any questions about workers’ compensation and your phrenic nerve injury, feel free to contact us at 888-705-1766.