Cubital tunnel syndrome is a condition that occurs when the ulnar nerve is compressed or pinched at the elbow and functionality of the ulnar nerve becomes disrupted.
The ulnar nerve, one of three main nerves in the arm, is susceptible to compression as it passes through many points of the arm. When nerve compression happens at the elbow, it is referred to as cubital tunnel syndrome. The “cubital tunnel” is the tissue tunnel area of the elbow in which the ulnar nerve travels through. Aching pain, numbness and muscle weakness often occur when excessive pressure is placed on the ulnar nerve in this area.
What Causes Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
Several factors can contribute to ulnar nerve compression and to the development of cubital tunnel syndrome.
“The ulnar nerve is very important because it controls many of the small muscles in our hands and is responsible for giving feeling to the little finger and ring finger. When the ulnar nerve is entrapped or compressed, we have difficulty with fine motor skills,” says Dr. Ben Jacobs, Rebound orthopedic surgeon who sub-specializes in hand and upper extremity surgery.
Because the ulnar nerve is situated under the bony bump in the elbow (called the medial epicondyle) and has minimal protective padding, it can be significantly affected by pressure.
“Something as simple as leaning your elbow against a desk or table for an extended amount of time can irritate the nerve,” says Dr. Jacobs. “Keeping the elbow in that type of bent position, even while sleeping, can put significant pressure on the nerve, causing pain and numbness.”
Here are some of the most common causes of compression that may lead to cubital tunnel syndrome:
- Keeping elbow bent or flexed for extended amounts of time
- Leaning on elbow for extended amounts of time
- Swelling from fluid buildup in the elbow
- Activities that involve repetitive bending of the elbow
- Injury or direct forceful impact to the elbow
What Symptoms are Associated with Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
Pain, numbness, tingling sensations and difficulty manipulating the fingers/hand are some of the most common symptoms associated with cubital tunnel syndrome.
“While those with cubital tunnel syndrome do typically experience elbow pain, a large number of symptoms are actually felt in the hand,” says Dr. Jacobs.
Some of the symptoms associated with cubital tunnel syndrome include:
- Aching pain in the elbow when in a bent, rested position
- Pain similar to that of hitting your “funny bone” – shock sensation
- Pain numbness after repetitive movement of the elbow
- Numbness of ring finger and little finger
- Difficulty moving fingers
- Tingling in the hand, most commonly the ring finger or little finger
- Weakened grip
“When irritation and pressure are long-term and interfere with how the ulnar nerve functions, that typically points to cubital tunnel syndrome,” says Dr. Jacobs. “It’s important to spot symptoms as early as possible and visit a specialist to avoid permanent damage to the muscles in the hand.”
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