Functioning without your arms and hands would be difficult. They enable you to perform countless simple tasks such as dressing, driving, bathing, and preparing food. Any injury or illness impacting them can make life far more challenging.
Passing through your arm is a large and important structure called the ulnar nerve. It plays an important role in enabling the muscles in your arms, hands, and fingers to move and for you to feel sensations like pain.
As the ulnar nerve travels down your arm, it passes through a collection of tissues near your elbow called the cubital tunnel.
The ulnar nerve is most exposed to an injury directly beneath the elbow because this part of the cubital tunnel is a small and narrow space where there are fewer cushioning muscles. This makes it easier for physical injuries or diseases like arthritis to enter this location. This is when cubital tunnel syndrome, known medically as ulnar nerve entrapment, occurs.
Many different circumstances can bring about cubital tunnel syndrome, including:
- Over Extension – A seemingly harmless action like bending or lying on your elbow for extended periods could place significant pressure on the ulnar nerve. For example, cases of cubital tunnel syndrome have been reported in individuals who continually sleep with their elbows bent. Leaning on your elbow for prolonged times while reading or writing could place added pressure on the nerve.
- Structural Changes – The tissues surrounding your ulnar nerve might undergo structural changes like thickening. Should this progress to an advanced stage, ulnar nerve injury can result.
- Sudden Injuries – Sudden injuries caused by falls and car accidents can bring about cubital tunnel syndrome. This includes elbow fractures and dislocations.
Your risk of developing cubital tunnel syndrome increases if you have:
- Been diagnosed with an illness like arthritis.
- Had a previous injury like elbow dislocation or fracture.
- Cysts near the elbow joint.
- Bone spurs in the elbow.
Your risk goes up if you work in a job or take part in leisure activities that force you to bend or stretch your elbow for long periods.
Symptoms vary from person to person. You should consider contacting Dr. Howard if you experience pain on the inside of your elbow for more than a few days. Other symptoms to be on the lookout for include:
- Repeated temporary numbness in your hands and fingers.
- Difficulty bending or stretching your fingers.
- Tingling in your hands and fingers.
- Occasionally, your elbow might become red, swollen, or tender to the touch.
In extreme cases, performing activities like driving or gripping objects, including your phone, is challenging.
You might experience muscle weakening in your arms or hands if you do not receive treatment. This could affect your ability to carry out routine tasks.
When Should You See a Doctor?
See a doctor if the initial symptoms last for longer than six weeks. If the symptoms are severe, significantly interfere with your ability to perform everyday activities, or quickly worsen after first appearing, contact us immediately.
Your doctor will carefully examine your arm and elbow for any obvious abnormalities. They might also ask you to stretch your arm or elbow, which allows them to test your motion range.
Your physician may order specific tests to confirm the diagnosis. These include blood tests to identify potential triggers like thyroid disease or diabetes, x-rays to rule out issues like bone fractures, or internal imaging devices like electromyogram, which enables medical professionals to determine ulnar nerve health and function.
Treatment will depend on issues such as your age, overall health, significant nerve compression or damage, and life-limiting your symptoms. Many cases respond favorably to home care treatments. The most serious or debilitating instances may need surgery.
Non-Surgical Treatment Options
The key to easing or possibly even curing the problem is limiting pressure placed on the affected arm or elbow. In many cases, improvement occurs when:
- The injured elbow or arm is rested for a significant length of time.
- Unnecessary movements are limited or eliminated.
- Sleeping on the elbow or arm in question is avoided.
- The elbow is fitted with protective safeguards such as pads, splints, or braces.
You may find relief from mild to moderate cases through efforts like taking anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections, and performing the appropriate arm or elbow stretching exercises.
When less aggressive therapies fail, or symptoms are serious enough, you may need to undergo surgery. Common cubital tunnel syndrome-correcting procedures include:
- Ulnar Nerve Repositioning – Surgeons transfer the ulnar nerve from underneath a part of potentially problematic elbow bone called the medial epicondyle to the elbow’s frontal region. This decreases the nerve’s chances of coming into contact with the bone.
- Medial Epicondylectomy – Doctors remove a large part of the medial epicondyle during this procedure. This is typically done to prevent the bone from pressing against the ulnar nerve.
- Cubital Tunnel Release – Surgeons cut away the upper part of your cubital tunnel. What doctors call your cubital tunnel roof is actually a soft tissue called a ligament. Release occurs when this structure is divided. The open space created by this action enlarges the cubital tunnel, allowing more room for the ulnar nerve to travel freely. This decreases the amount of pressure the nerve is exposed to.
It is difficult to offer specific recovery time frames.
Even in healthy individuals with no physical or biological illnesses, nerves typically heal at a slower pace than other parts of your body. Each case is different, and how quickly you recover will depend on factors such as your age, how physically active you are, your general health, ulnar nerve damage severity, and the type of treatment used.
Instances caused by sudden elbow-fracturing or dislocating events like automobile accidents and significant falls usually can’t always be prevented. There are ways to limit your chances of developing gradually emerging cases through preventative measures such as:
- Caring For Your Elbow – Avoid potential elbow-damaging actions like leaning on it for extended periods and sleeping on your arm or side.
- Strengthening Your Arms – Use exercises designed to strengthen the power and flexibility of your arms, hands, and elbows.
- Engaging In Proper Training Techniques – Take a few moments to stretch your arms and elbows before participating in any type of sport or physical activity.
- Wearing Protective Safeguards – Wear protective coverings such as braces, splints, or pads when playing sports or when you must lean on your elbow.
If you believe that you might have cubital tunnel syndrome, or have been diagnosed with it, please contact us.
Doctor Howard is a world-renowned orthopedic doctor who has worked for many professional sports franchises and has diagnosed and treated many cases of cubital tunnel syndrome.
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