Understanding Cubital Tunnel Syndrome


Everybody knows about carpal tunnel syndrome. But did you know cubital tunnel syndrome can be just as painful? Luckily, it’s treatable.

You’ve probably heard about carpal tunnel syndrome. But there’s a lesser-known condition that also affects the nerves in your arm called cubital tunnel syndrome.

With cubital tunnel syndrome, the ulnar nerve that runs from your neck to your hand is compressed at the medial epicondyle, or the bony bump of your elbow. This nerve is often called the “funny bone” because when you hit this bony part of your elbow you may feel a jolt of pain. But, cubital tunnel syndrome develops when the nerve is severely inflamed and you experience persistent symptoms. 

What causes cubital tunnel syndrome and what it feels like

Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when a person repeatedly bends or stretches their elbow, thereby irritating the nerve. Sitting for long periods with your elbows bent at a desk, for example, may also inflame the nerve. Sleeping with a bent elbow has the same effect. Other possible causes include a fractured elbow, bone spurs, or arthritis. And in some cases, there is no definitive cause.

Symptoms progress over time and vary with the individual. When the condition becomes more severe you’ll experience pain in your hand or the inside of the elbow. Tingling sensations and numbness in the hand as well as the ring or little finger when the elbow is bent often accompany the syndrome. Your hand may feel weak and you’ll have difficulty grasping objects.

To diagnose the syndrome, an orthopedist will order an X-ray to rule out the presence of a bone spur or arthritis. A nerve conduction test and an electromyogram can check your nerve function and whether it’s compressed.

Treating cubital tunnel syndrome

If you experience cubital tunnel syndrome symptoms for at least six weeks, you should see an orthopedist for diagnosis and treatment. Without medical intervention, cubital tunnel syndrome can lead to atrophied muscles in the arm and hand. 

You’ll start with conservative treatment, which may include wearing a brace at night to keep the elbow straight. To alleviate the pain and inflammation, you can also take nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen. 

Physical therapy is another conservative treatment option. Nerve gliding exercises will help ease the ulnar nerve through the cubital tunnel and can alleviate the stiffness in the arm and wrist. One such exercise to try begins by straightening your arm and elbows in front of you. Then, curl your wrists and fingers toward you. Finally, push them away from you and bend your elbow. A physical therapist can also show you how to move your hand so you don’t put pressure on the ulnar nerve.

If conservative methods fail to bring relief, you may be a candidate for two types of cubital tunnel syndrome surgery. In a medial epicondylectomy, the bony bump on the inside of the elbow is removed, which gives the ulnar nerve a smooth glide when the elbow is flexed and straightened. Ulnar nerve transposition involves creating a new tunnel in front of the medial epicondyle and moving the nerve there. The surgery restores the patient’s full range of motion, and light work can begin again within three to four weeks.

Preventing cubital tunnel syndrome

Cubital tunnel syndrome is a painful and sometimes debilitating condition. But it can be prevented. To maintain a strong arm and avoid the syndrome, take these precautions:

  • Avoid bending your elbow on hard surfaces for a long time.
  • Keep your elbow straight while you sleep.
  • Limit activities where you bend your arm for extended periods.
  • Warm up before doing sports that require repetitive movements of the arm and elbow.

Let us diagnose your elbow pain

Cubital tunnel syndrome is just one possible cause of your elbow and hand pain, but there could be others. At New York Bone & Joint Specialists, we can diagnose and treat your pain with conservative and surgical techniques. Contact us today for a consultation.

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