After severe nerve injuries, selective nerve transfers provide an opportunity to restore motor and sensory function. Functional recovery depends both on the successful re-innervation of the targets in the periphery and on the motor re-learning process entailing cortical plasticity. While there is an increasing number of methods to improve rehabilitation, their routine implementation in a clinical setting remains a challenge due to their complexity and long duration. Therefore, recommendations for rehabilitation strategies are presented with the aim of guiding medical doctors and therapists through the long-lasting rehabilitation process and providing step-by-step instructions for supporting motor re-learning.
Directly after nerve transfer surgery, no motor function is present, and therapy should focus on promoting activity in the sensory-motor cortex areas of the paralyzed body part. After about two to six months (depending on the severity and modality of injury, the distance of nerve regeneration and many other factors), the first motor activity can be detected via electromyography (EMG). Within this phase of rehabilitation, multimodal feedback is used to re-learn the motor function. This is especially critical after nerve transfers, as muscle activation patterns change due to the altered neural connection. Finally, muscle strength should be sufficient to overcome gravity/resistance of antagonistic muscles and joint stiffness, and more functional tasks can be implemented in rehabilitation.