Cubital tunnel syndrome is a condition where the ulnar nerve is pinched or compressed on the inside of the elbow. It can cause weakness in the hand, numbness and tingling in the pinky and ring fingers, and pain in the hand and inside the elbow.
The ulnar nerve goes all the way from the side of your neck to the ends of your fingers. This nerve runs above the back of the elbow, and when the nerve is struck, it’s called “hitting your funny bone.” So the sensation is actually not from hitting a bone, but rather a nerve.
That is why compression of the ulnar nerve in the elbow – cubital tunnel syndrome – can cause similar sensations as hitting your funny bone. Let’s talk about what causes this condition and how to treat and prevent it.
Causes of Compression of the Ulnar Nerve
The ulnar nerve is especially prone to compression because of the relatively narrow tunnel through which it must travel, and its lack of surrounding tissues to protect it. When bending the elbow, the nerve must stretch around the bony ridge; keeping the elbow bent for long periods of time can cause compression and irritation.
In particular, ulnar nerve compression can be caused by:
- Sleeping with elbows bent
- Leaning on the elbow (especially on hard surfaces)
- Fluid buildup in the elbow, thereby pinching the nerve
Symptoms of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
It is possible for cubital tunnel syndrome to cause an ache inside the elbow, but symptoms are usually felt in the hand and fingers. Numbness, tingling, and pain in the ring finger and the pinky can come and go, and it’s often caused by bending the elbow for long periods of time while driving or talking on the phone.
At times, this syndrome makes using the hand difficult, especially the smaller fingers. It can negatively affect the ability to grasp and hold onto objects. In severe cases, it can affect a person’s ability to type or to play an instrument.
If the condition persists and remains untreated, it can eventually cause wasting of the muscles in the fingers, hands, and forearm. This atrophy is often permanent and cannot be reversed.
Treating the Condition
Over-the-counter pain relievers can help to reduce swelling and discomfort around the nerve. Some doctors may recommend certain exercises that are specially designed to assist the nerve as it glides through the tunnel and Guyon’s canal.
One such exercise is this: While seated, extend and hold the affected arm out in front of you, and extend the hand away with hand tipped down as if to let an object roll off the fingertips. Then bend the elbow, bringing the hand up to the face.
Another technique is this: While seated, hold the affected arm out to the side, palm up, and curl the fingers and wrist upward toward the body. Extend them back down as you bend the elbow.
Repeating these exercises can help free the nerve and prevent stiffness in the arm and wrist.
In extreme cases where there is muscle atrophy or exercises don’t provide relief, surgery can help to relieve the pressure on the nerve. All of these surgical options involve freeing the nerve, either by cutting away some of the tunnel or the medial epicondyle in order to increase room for the nerve. The nerve may also be relocated from the medial epicondyle to either over or under the muscle of the forearm.
Orthopedists in Maryland
If you awaken to a numb, tingling sensation in a hand or fingers, or similar symptoms affect you whenever the elbow is bent, seek treatment to prevent further nerve degradation and wasting of the muscles in the hand, fingers, or wrist.
Contact us at the Orthopaedic Associates of Central Maryland by calling (410) 644-1880 or schedule an appointment online, and get the attention you need to get back the normal feeling and usefulness of your hand.