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St. Mary's Center for Orthopaedics

Ulnar Nerve Entrapment (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome)

What is Ulnar Nerve Entrapment (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome)?

Ulnar Nerve Entrapment occurs when the ulnar nerve becomes compressed. The ulnar nerve passes through a tunnel (cubital tunnel) behind the inside of the elbow. The nerve can be felt through the skin at the point of the elbow, which is commonly called the “funny bone”. When the ulnar nerve goes into the hand, it travels through another tunnel (Guyon’s canal).  The ulnar nerve provides sensation to the pinky and half of the ring finger, as well as controls most of the muscles in the hand that help with fine movements.

What Causes Ulnar Nerve Entrapment?

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

What are the Symptoms of Ulnar Nerve Entrapment?

Common symptoms of ulnar nerve entrapment are:

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

The symptoms of ulnar nerve entrapment may be similar to symptoms of other medical conditions, including medial epicondylitis (golfer’s elbow). Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is Ular Nerve Entrapment Diagnosed?

In addition to taking your complete medical history and examining you, your doctor might order the following tests to help diagnose ulnar nerve entrapment:

  • Nerve conduction test – determines how fast signals travel down a nerve.  It can detect nerve compression.
  • Electromyogram (EMG) – The ulnar nerve controls some forearm muscles.  This test determines if those muscles are working normally.

How is Ulnar Nerve Entrapment Treated?

Your doctor will decide on the best treatment for your ulnar nerve entrapment 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 ulnar nerve entrapment is to stop the activity that causes the problem.

Non-surgical Treatment

Non-surgical treatment may include:

  • Reduce or stop the 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.