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Surgeons perform tendon transfers by releasing one end of a tendon from bone or soft tissue and reconnecting it to another bone or tendon.

Tendon transfers are undertaken to restore muscle function and can be used for any kind of nerve injury. Instead of moving the nerve supply from one muscle to another muscle — as is done with a nerve transfer — the surgeon takes the end of a tendon, cuts it and moves it to perform a different function.

As an example, a tendon transfer is commonly used to treat a radial nerve injury that limits mobility in the wrist and fingers. A surgeon will take some expendable tendons from the front of the forearm, which are innervated by a different nerve and normally produce flexion, and connect them to tendons on the back of the forearm to enable the patient to extend the wrist and fingers.

Tendon transfers are used to treat many conditions. They are indicated when muscle function is lost due to nerve injury, and the nerve can no longer send signals to the muscle and cannot be repaired. Some common injuries treated with tendon transfers are radial, ulnar and median nerve injury; foot drop due to peroneal nerve injury; and spine injury as well as hand paralysis due to spinal cord injury.

One benefit of moving tendons is that there is no time limitation. The window for successfully repairing nerves is about a year, but a tendon transfer can restore muscle function many years after the initial injury.

Your surgeon will select tendon transfer or other treatments based on your condition and which technique offers the best chance of recovery.