Due to anatomic variance in subscapular nerve innervation patterns, it is theorized that the dysfunction of the subscapularis could be the result of iatrogenic denervation during mobilization of the subscapularis while exposing the anterior glenohumeral joint in anterior surgical approaches. The purpose of this study was to describe innervation patterns of the subscapularis and to characterize a safe zone when conducting an anterior surgical approach.

The study used 6 human cadaveric shoulder specimens (12 shoulders total). A deltopectoral approach was used to expose the axillary nerve back to the posterior cord of the brachial plexus and reveal the origins of the upper and lower subscapularis nerves. An anatomic safe zone was characterized by measuring distances from both the upper and lower subscapularis nerve insertions with respect to that of the lateral border of the conjoint tendon, the bicipital groove, superior border of the subscapularis, and the axillary nerve (for the lower subscapular nerve only) with the arm in 30° abduction.

The anatomic safe zone of the subscapular nerves medial to the conjoint tendon is less than 32 mm. In relation to the axillary nerve, the safe zone is less than 10 mm inferiorly and 15 mm medially.

This described safe zone with respect to the lateral border of the conjoint tendon and axillary nerve is aimed to provide guidance to reduce iatrogenic injury of the subscapular nerves during anterior shoulder exposure. Extra care should be undertaken while dissecting past this safe zone to prevent iatrogenic subscapular nerve injury.