Background Operative traction of the thyroid lobe is a necessary component of thyroid surgery. This surgical maneuver can cause traction injury of the recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN), and this complication has been reported to be the most common mechanism of nerve injury. The goal of this study was to investigate the electromyographic (EMG) signal pattern during an acute RLN traction injury and establish reliable strategies to prevent the injury using intraoperative neuromonitoring (IONM). Methods Fifteen piglets (30 RLNs) underwent IONM via automated periodic vagal nerve stimulation and had their EMG tracings recorded and correlated with various models of nerve injury. Results In the pilot study, a progressive, partial EMG loss was observed under RLN tractions with different tension (n = 8). The changes in amplitudes were more marked and consistent than were the changes in latency. The EMG gradually gained partial recovery after the traction was relieved. Among the nerves injured with electrothermal (n = 4), clamping (n = 1), and transection (n = 1) models, the EMG showed immediate partial or complete loss, and no gradual EMG recovery was observed. Another 16 RLNs were used to investigate the potential of EMG recovery after different extents of RLN traction. We noted the EMG showed nearly full recovery if the traction stress was relieved before the loss of signal (LOS), but the recovery was worse if prolonged or repeated traction was applied. The mean restored amplitudes after the traction was relieved before, during, and after the LOS were 98 ± 3% (n = 6), 36 ± 4% (n = 4), and 15 ± 2% (n = 6), respectively. Conclusion RLN traction injury showed graded, partial EMG changes; early release of the traction before the EMG has degraded to LOS offers a good chance of EMG recovery. IONM can be used as a tool for the early detection of adverse EMG changes that may alert surgeons to correct certain maneuvers immediately to prevent irreversible nerve injury during the thyroid operation.
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