The ulnar nerve is quite popular, even if incidentally so: it’s commonly referred to as the “funny bone.” This is because if it’s struck in just the right place, it causes a sensation akin to an electric shock that travels down towards the forearm and fingers. However, this also highlights its important role: the ulnar nerve is also known as the “musician’s nerve,” responsible for the delicate, fine movement of the fingers. Therefore, ulnar nerve entrapment can be a debilitating condition, leading to loss of function and sensation.
That’s why in this post, we’ll look at how and why ulnar nerve entrapment can happen. We’ll look at the symptoms and discuss some of the treatment options available.
Ulnar Nerve Entrapment: Why It Happens
The ulnar nerve is very vulnerable to injury, especially since it’s the largest nerve in the body that does not have any protection from bone or muscle. The factors that can contribute to ulnar nerve syndrome are:
- Injuries to the elbow, such as sprains or fractures. These can cause swelling and inflammation that can irritate the nerve. The nerve may also experience trauma directly or compression from nearby tissues or bone.
- Repetitive use of the elbow. The ulnar nerve passes through a small tunnel inside the elbow and is near the surface of the arm. Prolonged and repeated movement can damage or irritate it.
- Prolonged pressure on the base of the palm. This can compress the nerve and damage it.
- Leaning on the elbow for prolonged periods can compress or damage the nerve. This is especially true when working or sleeping.
- Fluid retention associated with pregnancy can also lead to temporary nerve compression that alleviates after pregnancy.
- Development of a cyst, tumor, or ganglion near the nerve, particularly in the wrist joint.
- Conditions that cause nerve damage, such as diabetes and arthritis.
What Is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
The condition is known as cubital tunnel syndrome, or ulnar tunnel syndrome, named after the tunnel inside the elbow through which the ulnar nerve passes into the forearm. You might even have noticed that if you’ve been leaning on your elbow for a while, your hand and forearm begin to tingle and feel numb. See if you can also notice that your pinky and half of your ring finger are tingling or numb – the ulnar nerve directly innervates these areas. Leaning on the elbow causes nerve compression, which hinders the transmission of electrical impulses through it.
Straightening your elbow can often alleviate the tingling.
However, symptoms can be much more serious, especially if you have developed numbness and tingling that won’t go away.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose the symptoms of ulnar nerve entrapment through several diagnostic tests. They will begin with a physical exam, tapping the length of the nerve to see if you can feel a tingling sensation. They may order imaging studies like x-rays, MRI, or CT scans. The symptoms they’re looking for include:
- Weakness in the affected hand, especially when trying to hold objects.
- Pain of varying degrees.
- Tingling or numbness, particularly in the pinky and ring fingers.
- Difficulty performing tasks requiring fine motor control, such as typing, holding utensils, or playing an instrument.
- The affecting hand forming a “claw” or showing signs of muscular atrophy (muscle loss.)
Treatment of Ulnar Nerve Entrapment
If you’ve been diagnosed with ulnar tunnel syndrome, treatment options will depend on the cause.
The priority is to treat any medical conditions contributing to the problem, such as diabetes or arthritis. Next, it’s important to physically relieve the involved joints from strain by emphasizing rest, avoiding elbow and hand movement, and using a brace or splint to take pressure off the nerve.
Most effective treatment options involve surgery to remove pressure from the ulnar nerve. Procedures can include:
- Ulnar Nerve Transposition, where the nerve is shifted permanently to a different location in the elbow to prevent wear and tear from movement of the joint.
- Medial Epicondylectomy involves the removal of a bone in the elbow called the medial epicondyle. This prevents the nerve from shifting positions as the patient flexes the elbow.
- Cyst or Ganglion Removal, especially from the wrist, is a common procedure that removes pressure on the ulnar nerve.
- Cubital Tunnel Release involves enlarging the cubital tunnel to allow more room for the nerve passing through it. The surgeon may cut a ligament and remove some tissue from the tunnel.
Following surgery, the doctor may prescribe rehabilitation exercises and restrict activity until recovery is complete. The nerve needs time to regrow and regain function, with agility and strength returning as recovery progresses. However, severe damage to the nerve may lead to some relief of symptoms but incomplete recovery.
We hope this article about ulnar nerve entrapment has been useful for learning about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of this condition. If you’re experiencing pain daily because of your condition, it’s important to see a qualified pain specialist who can help you manage it and improve your quality of life.
At Genesis Pain Clinic, we’re proud to be practitioners of the highest standard of interventional pain management. We offer diagnostic testing and regenerative medicine, with the mission to allow all our patients to live healthy, pain-free lives. Please give us a call if you have any questions at (913) 871-9888.
We look forward to helping you.