Carrying a heavy backpack exerts compression on shoulders, with the potential to cause brachial plexopathy. We evaluated the incidence and predisposing factors of compression plexopathy of the shoulder region in 152,095 military conscripts, hypothesizing that a low body mass index and poor physical fitness predispose to the plexus lesion. Reports of conscripts with neural lesions of the upper arm associated with load carriage were reviewed retrospectively for details associated with the condition onset, symptoms, signs, nerve conduction studies, and electromyographic examinations. Height, weight, and physical fitness scores were obtained from their military training data. The incidence of neural compression after shoulder load carriage in Finnish soldiers was 53.7 (95% confidence interval, 39.5-67.8) per 100,000 conscripts per year. The long thoracic nerve was affected in 19, the axillary nerve in 13, the suprascapular nerve in seven, and the musculocutaneous nerve in six patients. Four patients (7%) had hereditary neuropathy with susceptibility to pressure palsies (HNPP). Symptoms were induced by lighter loads in patients with HNPP. Vulnerability to brachial plexopathy was not predictable from body structure or physical fitness level. To prevent these lesions, awareness of the condition and its symptoms should be increased and backpack designs should be improved.
Level of Evidence: Level III, prognostic study. See the Guidelines for Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.