OHSU

Ulnar Nerve Entrapment (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome)

Cubital tunnel syndrome feels similar to the pain when you hit your "funny bone." In fact, your "funny bone" is actually the ulnar nerve where it crosses your elbow. (The ulnar nerve begins in the side of your neck and ends in your fingers.)

Causes

This syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve, which passes through the cubital tunnel (a tunnel of muscle, ligament and bone) on the inside of your elbow, is irritated by injury or pressure.

This condition might occur when you:

  • Frequently bend your elbows (such as when you pull, reach or lift)
  • Constantly lean on your elbow
  • Have a direct injury to this area

Symptoms

If you have ulnar nerve entrapment (cubital tunnel syndrome), your symptoms may be different from someone else's. Common symptoms are:

  • Numbness in your hand, ring finger (third finger from your thumb) and little finger
  • Hand pain
  • Hand and thumb clumsiness caused by muscle weakness

The symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome may be similar to symptoms of other medical conditions, including medial epicondylitis (golfer's elbow). Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

Diagnosis

In addition to taking your complete medical history and examining you, your doctor might order the following tests to help diagnose cubital tunnel syndrome:

  • Nerve conduction test: This test determines how fast signals travel down a nerve. It can detect nerve compression.
  • Electromyogram (EMG): Your ulnar nerve controls some forearm muscles. This test can tell if those muscles are working normally. If they aren't, it could mean you have an ulnar nerve problem.

Treatment

Your doctor will decide on the best treatment for your ulnar nerve entrapment (cubital tunnel syndrome) based on:

  • Your age, general health and medical history
  • Extent of your condition
  • How well certain medications, procedures or treatments work for you
  • How your doctor expects the condition to progress (get worse or better)
  • Your opinion or preference

The most effective treatment for cubital tunnel syndrome is to stop the activity that causes the problem.

Non-surgical treatment

Non-surgical treatment may include:

  • Reduce or stop  activity, such as bending, that aggravates your condition
  • Wear a splint or foam elbow pad at night (to limit movement and reduce irritation)
  • Wear an elbow pad (to protect against chronic irritation from hard surfaces)
  • Physical therapy

Occupational therapy (such as changing the position of your computer keyboard, or making other changes to activities done with your hands, arms or elbows)

Surgical treatment

Surgery to relieve pressure on your ulnar nerve may help if your symptoms get worse or if tests show that part of your nerve is wasting away.

Prognosis

Cubital tunnel surgery may be right for you if:

  • Your doctor believes you are a suitable patient (would benefit from surgery)
  • Have an accurate diagnosis
  • Have surgery by an experienced surgeon

It is important to know that many people still have some symptoms after cubital tunnel surgery. Ask your OHSU Nerve Center doctor about the best treatment options for you.