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Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

woman in her kitchenFrequently located at the site of your “funny bone,” cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when you have a small bone mass resting on the ulnar nerve, the nerve that runs through the elbow. As the pressure on the nerve increases, you experience numbness, tingling, and pain in the elbow, forearm, hand, and fingers.

What causes cubital tunnel syndrome, and what are its symptoms?

Given its position directly next to bone, there is little padding to protect the ulnar nerve. Leaning on your elbow for too long can cause temporary numbness and pain, and if you lean consistently, the symptoms will persist. If your ulnar nerve flicks back-and-forth over the bone mass as you bend and straighten your elbow, the nerve can become highly irritated. It’s also possible to cause nerve damage from keeping the elbow in a bent position for an extended period, such as during sleep.

Pain, numbness, and tingling — especially in the right and little fingers — often accompanies cubital tunnel syndrome. Some patients report weakness while pinching, sporadic clumsiness, and a tendency to drop things. Severe cases can result in a complete loss of sensation, and the hand muscles can lose definition and strength.

How is cubital tunnel syndrome diagnosed and treated?

Our orthopaedists will conduct a physical exam and analyze your symptoms. An electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction study (NCS) may be ordered to confirm this condition and to determine its severity. These studies can also identify other potential nerve problems throughout the body.

If the EMG and NCS show the pressure on the nerve is minimal, it’s possible to relieve symptoms without surgery. Avoiding placing your elbow on hard surfaces or wearing elbow pads can be effective. Using a splint at night to keep the arm straight can also reduce nerve irritation. For severe cases, though, surgery may be the only option. Your surgeon could recommend shifting the nerve to the front of the elbow to relieve pressure and tension or placing it under a layer of fat or muscle or even within the muscle. Others could suggest shaving down the bony mass.