The Anatomy of the Elbow and What Causes Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Ulnar nerve compression also known as cubital tunnel syndrome is a condition in which the ulnar nerve running from the neck to the hand (through the elbow) becomes constricted. This condition is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome with some distinctions.

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms

The ulnar nerve passes through the cubital tunnel, which is located under the bony prominence on the inner portion of the elbow. The ulnar nerve controls a number of the hand muscles that allow for fine movement, some of the forearm muscles necessary for gripping, and provides sensation to part of the ring finger and the little finger. When the ulnar nerve is compressed, you may feel tingling and numbness in the hand, pinky (little finger), and ring finger. Cubital tunnel syndrome can be differentiated from carpal tunnel syndrome by the fact that carpal tunnel syndrome affects the median nerve that provides feeling to the thumb, index, and middle finger but not the pinky or little finger.

Causes of Ulnar Nerve Compression

When the elbow is bent, the ulnar nerve is stretched around the medial epicondyle of the elbow. Over time, this repeated stretching can cause the nerve to become irritated and inflamed. Excess fluid in the joint, trauma, and leaning on the elbows for prolonged periods may cause swelling that can lead to nerve compression. Those most at risk for ulnar nerve entrapment include:

  • Individuals with prior dislocations or fractures involving the elbow;
  • Individuals engaged in activities that require repeated flexing and bending of the elbow; and
  • Individuals with arthritis, bone spurs, or cysts involving the elbow.

Possible Conservative Treatment

Rest, bracing, and other conservative treatments may be sufficient to reduce the inflammation and alleviate cubital tunnel symptoms. If symptoms persist or cause chronic muscle weakness in the hands, a cubital tunnel specialist may have to perform surgery to relieve the compression on that nerve.

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