Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve or “funny bone” becomes compressed or irritated. But there’s nothing funny about it for the people who suffer from the pain and disability caused by this condition.
Read on to learn what causes cubital tunnel syndrome, what symptoms feel like and how it’s typically treated.
What is cubital tunnel syndrome?
The ulnar nerve runs from your neck down to your hand and provides feeling to your ring and little fingers. It connects to your hand’s small muscles that help you grip things and passes through an opening at the elbow called the cubital tunnel.
Not to be confused with the more commonly known carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome—also called ulnar nerve entrapment or compression—is a condition in which your ulnar nerve gets compressed from excess pressure.
What are the signs of cubital tunnel syndrome?
Numbness on the inside of your hand and in your ring and little fingers can be an early sign of cubital tunnel syndrome. Sometimes that numbness eventually develops into pain.
You’ll most often feel numbness when your elbow is bent for long periods, like when you’re sleeping or holding up your phone to talk or text. You may even feel like your hand or thumb become weak or clumsy.
Some common cubital tunnel syndrome symptoms to watch for include:
- Tingling in your forearms
- Your ring finger and little finger “fall asleep”
- Weakness when gripping
- Trouble with finger coordination
- Muscle weakness, or clumsiness
What causes it and who’s at risk?
Bending your elbow more than 90 degrees for long periods, bending your elbow repeatedly, sleeping with a bent elbow or frequently leaning on your elbows can also cause the ulnar nerve compression that develops into cubital tunnel syndrome. The ulnar nerve can also be damaged from a hard blow to the cubital tunnel.
Some everyday activities that can lead to this type of nerve compression (when done frequently or for prolonged periods) include:
- Direct pressure on the elbow (e.g., leaning forward while sitting at a desk)
- Leaning on the elbow rest on long drives
- Running machinery/pulling levers
Some people have a higher risk of developing cubital tunnel syndrome due to existing conditions or past injuries, including:
- Bone spurs
- Previous fracture or dislocation below the elbow
- Joint damage from arthritis
When should you see a doctor?
Occasional aches and pains in our hand, wrist or elbow are relatively common, so it can be hard to know when they warrant a call to the doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment of cubital tunnel syndrome.
If you’re having pain that is severe or you can’t move your finger or rotate your wrist, you should seek medical care right away. Don’t wait to schedule an appointment if something doesn’t feel right or your condition could get worse. This is especially true in cases of cubital tunnel syndrome.
What to expect at your appointment:
To determine if you’re experiencing cubital tunnel syndrome or some other condition, your doctor will ask about your medical history and any injuries you may have had. They’ll typically do a physical exam and try to locate the spot where your ulnar nerve is getting pinched.
The doctor might order tests like a nerve conduction velocity (NCV) test or X-ray to see where the nerve is being compressed and what’s causing the compression. They may even want to do an electromyogram (EMG) to check your muscle function.
How is cubital tunnel syndrome treated?
If treated early enough, cubital tunnel syndrome can usually be managed with changes in activity and bracing.
Avoiding elbow bending as much as possible during activities and at night is usually recommended. Wearing an elbow splint to bed can keep you from bending your elbow while you sleep.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce swelling around the nerve. Your doctor may even recommend some nerve gliding exercises to help prevent stiffness in the arm and wrist.
If non-surgical methods or therapies haven’t helped improve your cubital tunnel syndrome, surgery to relieve pressure on the ulnar nerve may be recommended.
The different types of surgical procedures include:
- Cubital tunnel release. The ligament roof of the cubital tunnel is cut and divided, increasing the tunnel’s size and decreasing pressure on the nerve.
- Ulnar nerve anterior transposition. The nerve is moved to a new location to prevent it from getting caught on the bony ridge and stretching when the elbow is bent.
- Medial epicondylectomy. Part of the medial epicondyle is removed, preventing the nerve from getting caught, like in ulnar nerve transposition.
Patients who need surgery to treat their cubital tunnel syndrome tend to do very well and recover fully. However, If the nerve is very badly compressed or if there is muscle wasting, it can take time for the nerves to recover, and in some cases, they may not be able to return to normal.
Hand, wrist and elbow care at OrthoIndy
OrthoIndy specialists focus on treating your hand, wrist or elbow injuries with the best options to keep you active in your daily activities.
If you’re having symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome, request an appointment online or call us at 317.802.2000.
If your injury or condition is recent, you can walk right into one of our OrthoIndy Urgent Care locations for immediate care.