Do you know that tingling feeling you get when you bump your elbow just the right (or the wrong) way? Some people call it hitting the “funny bone”. Actually, that feeling occurs when the ulnar nerve connects with the bony part of your elbow.
If you’re experiencing a similar numb feeling in your arm or hand, then it could be due to Cubital Tunnel Syndrome. This condition occurs when the muscles and bones of your elbow compress the ulnar nerve.
The arm has three main nerves running through it. One of them, the ulnar nerve, stretches from the back of the neck to the hand. It controls many of the hand muscles that help with fine motor movements. In addition, it provides feeling for the little finger and part of the ring finger.
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome occurs when there is pressure on the ulnar nerve in or around the inside of the elbow. This nerve passes through a tunnel of soft tissues, known as the cubital tunnel, and runs near a bony bump called the medial epicondyle. Some consider this to be the“funny bone”. At this spot, the ulnar nerve rests very close to the skin. This area offers very little protection to the ulnar nerve. Bumping it causes the tingling feeling that we associate with striking the funny bone.
Of course, a simple bump against this area isn’t responsible for cubital tunnel syndrome. It usually occurs with wear and tear or trauma to the area.
The compression of the ulnar nerve can be a result of a few different factors. These include:
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Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome generally affect the arm, hand, and fingers. Symptoms range from mild to severe. In many cases, the symptoms come and go or worsen when you bend your elbow. Some of the common symptoms include:
Any sign of muscle weakness due to cubital tunnel syndrome should be addressed by a doctor ASAP. In many cases, the muscle wasting cannot be reversed.
While this condition can affect just about anyone, there some people who run a higher risk than others. Risk factors for this disorder include:
Severe or persistent (more than a few weeks) symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome need a doctor’s attention. During the initial visit, your doctor will do a full review of your medical history. In addition, the doctor may ask about your work and leisure activities to assess hidden causes of your condition.
After reviewing your medical history, your doctor will perform a physical examination using some of the following tests:
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Luckily, milder cases of cubital tunnel syndrome only require conservative treatments. When a doctor determines the cause, time and rest are the two of the most common treatments. For athletes and people with jobs that can irritate the ulnar nerve, this means taking a break or changing the way you do things.
Patient education plays another key role in treatment. When you understand the causes of your symptoms, you can make lifestyle changes to recover even faster. For example, if you spend long hours at a computer, you may wish to change your setup so you’re not placing added pressure on your elbows.
This may be all you need to resolve the issue. If symptoms persist, there are other treatments available. For example, an elbow brace can be used to immobilize the area. Some doctors may even suggest loosely wrapping a towel around the arm at night to prevent bending the elbow while you sleep.
Some patients may also benefit from physical therapy. A PT can teach exercises and techniques that help you increase flexibility and prevent stiffness. In addition, a PT can suggest ways to avoid putting added pressure on the ulnar nerve during your daily activities.
The most common medication for cubital tunnel syndrome, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), can aid in reducing any swelling around the nerve. Doctors usually prescribe these medications at the onset of symptoms.
Not everyone dealing with symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome will need surgery. If pain lasts more than three months after other treatments, however, surgery may be an option. Muscle weakness and damage also indicates the need for surgery. Luckily, these minimally invasive procedures only require an outpatient visit or, at most, an overnight stay.
This procedure helps relieve pressure on the ulnar nerve. An orthopedic surgeon will cut a band of tissue or remove part of the bone near the nerve. The release of pressure frees up space for the ulnar nerve.
During this procedure, the orthopedic surgeon removes the medial epicondyle. By removing this bony mass on the inside of the elbow, it provides more space for the ulnar nerve. In addition, it allows the nerve to slide along the bone unobstructed. This eases compression and nerve irritation.
This procedure involves moving the ulnar nerve to a better position in the elbow. The surgeon moves the nerve away from the medial epicondyle and places it in a more spacious area of the elbow. After the surgery, the patient usually wears a plaster cast or splint for 2 to 4 weeks as the ulnar nerve gets used to its new position.
Recovery times for these procedures can vary according to a patient’s overall health, the type of surgery, and the severity of the condition. For the first two procedures, you would expect a full recovery within 6 weeks. The anterior transposition recovery usually takes longer and may require added PT sessions.
If severe symptoms of a pinched ulnar nerve impact the quality of your life, consulting with an orthopedic surgeon can help prevent irreversible nerve and muscle damage. Our knowledgeable doctors at NJ Spine & Orthopedic can pinpoint the source of your discomfort and find the best solution to help you get your life back on track. Their minimally invasive procedures promise smaller incisions and shorter recovery times. Don’t wait to schedule a consultation–Get the relief you need today!
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