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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Surgical fasciectomy of the trapezius muscle combined with neurolysis of the Spinal accessory nerve; results and long-term follow-up in 30 consecutive cases of refractory chronic whiplash syndrome

N Ake Nystrom12*, Lloyd P Champagne3, Michael Freeman4 and Elisabet Blix5

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE, USA

2 Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE, USA

3 Arizona Center for Hand Surgery, Phoenix, AZ, USA

4 Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, Portland, OR, USA

5 Department of Anesthesiology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

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Journal of Brachial Plexus and Peripheral Nerve Injury 2010, 5:7  doi:10.1186/1749-7221-5-7

Published: 7 April 2010



Chronic problems from whiplash trauma generally include headache, pain and neck stiffness that may prove refractory to conservative treatment modalities. As has previously been reported, such afflicted patients may experience significant temporary relief with injections of local anesthetic to painful trigger points in muscles of the shoulder and neck, or lasting symptomatic improvement through surgical excision of myofascial trigger points. In a subset of patients who present with chronic whiplash syndrome, the clinical findings suggest an affliction of the spinal accessory nerve (CN XI, SAN) by entrapment under the fascia of the trapezius muscle. The present study was undertaken to assess the effectiveness of SAN neurolysis in chronic whiplash syndrome.


A standardized questionnaire and a linear visual-analogue scale graded 0-10 was used to assess disability related to five symptoms (pain, headache, insomnia, weakness, and stiffness) before, and one year after surgery in a series of thirty consecutive patients.


The preoperative duration of symptoms ranged from seven months to 13 years. The following changes in disability scores were documented one year after surgery: Overall pain decreased from 9.5 +/- 0.9 to 3.2 +/- 2.6 (p < 0.001); headaches from 8.2 +/- 2.9 to 2.3 +/- 2.8 (p < 0.001); insomnia from 7.5 +/- 2.4 to 3.8 +/- 2.8 (p < 0.001); weakness from 7.6 +/- 2.6 to 3.6 +/- 2.8 (p < 0.001); and stiffness from 7.0 +/- 3.2 to 2.6 +/- 2.7 (p < 0.001).


Entrapment of the spinal accessory nerve and/or chronic compartment syndrome of the trapezius muscle may cause chronic debilitating pain after whiplash trauma, without radiological or electrodiagnostic evidence of injury. In such cases, surgical treatment may provide lasting relief.