Cubital tunnel syndrome

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While you may have heard of carpal tunnel syndrome, which is pain weakness, tingling or numbness in your hand caused by pressure on the median nerve as it passes through the carpal tunnel in the wrist, you may be less familiar with cubital tunnel syndrome.

This condition produces similar symptoms to carpal tunnel syndrome in the hand but it is due to pressure on the ulnar nerve, which passes close to the skin’s surface near the funny bone in the elbow.

Causes of cubital tunnel syndrome

Cubital tunnel syndrome can develop as a result of:

  • Keeping your elbow bent for long periods of time (for example while talking on the phone).
  • Habitually leaning on the elbows.
  • Repetitive arm movements during certain sports which can cause ligament damage.
  • Abnormal bone structure in the elbow.
  • Scar tissue or tightening of the tunnel through which the nerve runs.

Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome

Symptoms might include:

  • Pain in the elbow, which may be severe.
  • Tingling or weakness in the little finger and ring finger.
  • Weakened hand grip or ability to pinch with the thumb or push the little finger outwards
  • Muscle wasting or deformity in the hand.
  • A feeling of clicking at the funny bone, if the nerve is flicking (subluxing) over the bone.

Diagnosis of cubital tunnel syndrome

A physical examination will normally be used to diagnose cubital tunnel syndrome. The doctor may also request a nerve test which involves placing electrodes onto the skin to assess if there is any nerve damage and measure the health of the muscles.

Treatment of cubital tunnel syndrome

If you have mild cubital tunnel syndrome, you may benefit from avoiding putting pressure on your elbow and wearing a splint at night to protect the elbow from over-bending.

Painkillers and anti-inflammatories can help to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

Physiotherapy can help to stretch and soften tight areas that may be stretching or causing reassure on the nerve. Pads or desensitisation methods such as skin massage may help relieve sensitivity on the inside of  the elbow over the nerve.

In more severe cases, you may be offered one of a range of surgical procedures including:

  • Decompression of the ulnar nerve to release a trapped nerve from tight ligaments and bands.
  • Moving the ulnar nerve in front of the bone on the inside of the elbow to prevent it flicking (subluxing) – this is called transposition.

Rehabilitation is an important part of the recovery process. You will need to avoid any heavy lifting for a short period and may need to do exercises to build strength and flexibility in your affected arm. It may take weeks or months for the numbness and tingling to improve. A physiotherapist may also be able to recommend ways of avoiding repetitive strain on your arm in the future.

Consultants

For rapid access to specialist orthopaedic consultants who can help you with a personalised treatment plan, take the first step and arrange a consultation.