While most people have heard of carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome is not as well known. Cubital tunnel syndrome is a painful condition caused by entrapment of the ulnar nerve, which gives sensation to the little finger, the outside half of the ring finger, and the side of the hand. Cubital tunnel syndrome sufferers may experience pain, numbness, and tingling in the affected hand. In more severe cases, it may affect your ability to grip things and reduce finger coordination.
In this blog, NYC orthopedic elbow specialist, Dr. Francis Mendoza, will explain the causes of this condition and the best treatments for cubital tunnel syndrome.
How does cubital tunnel syndrome develop?
Your elbow is a very bony structure, with little soft tissue to protect the vulnerable ulnar nerve, which begins at the side of the neck and runs all the way down the arm, passing through the cubital tunnel just inside the elbow. If you’ve ever hit your “funny bone,” you can get a sense of how close to the surface this nerve is and how much pain it can cause. Cubital tunnel syndrome can develop due to irritation of the nerve from sliding back and forth over the bony parts of your elbow, or as a result of prolonged, direct pressure.
Activities that require you to repeatedly bend your elbow can cause cubital tunnel syndrome, as can sitting or sleeping with your elbow bent for prolonged periods of time. Swelling in your elbow can also put pressure on the ulnar nerve, causing symptoms.
In addition, you may be at a higher risk for developing cubital tunnel syndrome if you:
- Have suffered a fracture or a dislocation of the elbow in the past
- Have bone spurs or arthritis in your elbow
- Have swelling in your elbow for any reason
- Have a cyst near your elbow
Can putting off treatment impact my symptoms?
The longer you wait to treat cubital tunnel syndrome, the more likely it is that compression will become worse and symptoms will worsen as well. Symptoms usually come and go in the early stages, and are worse when your elbow is bent. As time goes on, you may find that you have less coordination in your hand and your grip may weaken. If the ulnar nerve remains compressed for too long, it can even result in muscle wasting in your hand.
What treatments for cubital tunnel syndrome work best?
Although each individual person is different and may have different needs, cubital tunnel syndrome often responds well to conservative treatment options.
Conservative treatments for cubital tunnel syndrome may include:
- Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, which reduce pain and swelling
- Avoiding activities that require keeping your arm bent for long periods of time
- Avoiding leaning on your bent elbow
- Taking frequent breaks from physical activity so that your elbow isn’t overworked
- Wearing a splint or brace at night to keep your elbow from bending
For chronic or severe ulnar nerve entrapment, surgery may be your best option for relief. Surgical treatments for cubital tunnel syndrome are done on an outpatient basis and include:
- Ulnar nerve transposition – A surgery that involves moving the ulnar nerve from the back of the elbow to the front of the elbow in order to reduce pressure on the nerve.
- Medial epicondylectomy – A procedure in which the medial epicondyle (the bony bump on your inner elbow) is removed, relieving pressure on the nerve.