Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

man holding his elbow because of painfully elbow

What is it/what happens to cause this issue?

Cubital tunnel syndrome is caused by repetitive increased pressure on the ulnar nerve, which passes near the surface of the skin in the elbow commonly known as the funny bone. It is commonly caused from repeatedly leaning on your elbow on hard surfaces, or often bending your elbow for sustained periods, like talking on a cell phone or sleeping with your elbow bent with your hand under the pillow. Another way cubital tunnel syndrome occurs is from an abnormal bone growth in the elbow, or from intense physical activity that places too much pressure on the ulnar nerve. Baseball pitchers have an increased risk of cubital tunnel syndrome because the twisting motion required to throw can, over time, damage delicate ligaments. Early symptoms to look out for include:

  • -pain and numbness in elbow
  • -tingling, especially in the ring and little fingers
  • -weakness affecting the ring and little fingers
  • -diminishing ability to pinch the thumb and little finger
  • -diminishing overall hand grip ability
  • -muscle gradually wasting in the hand
  • -deformity of the hand resembling claw

What does a typical treatment look like?

It is important to see a doctor if you are experiencing painful symptoms, to avoid a worsening condition. Cubital tunnel syndrome recovery is possible without surgery, especially if electromyography reveals that there is minimal pressure affecting the ulnar nerve. Physical therapy treatments for mild cases include:

  • -avoiding needless pressure on the elbow during daily activities
  • -use of a protective elbow pad over the funny bone during most of daily activities
  • -use of a splint when sleeping to prevent over-bending of the elbow

Other treatments include medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to decrease soft tissue swelling, corticosteroid injections that aid in relieving inflammation and pressure on the radial nerve, and finally wrist and/or elbow splints to decrease any irritation of the radial nerve.

In more serious cases where splinting doesn’t help the patient or nerve compression is more severe, around 85% of patients respond to the appropriate form of surgery to release pressure on the ulnar nerve. After surgery recovery may involve temporary restrictions on lifting and any elbow movement, as well rehabilitation therapy. Although the existing numbness and tingling may or may not immediately improve, the ultimate recovery of hand and wrist strength may take several months.

Is there a recovery time before it’s gone or does it have lingering effects?
If non-surgical methods fail to provide relief after three months, your doctor may consider surgery to reduce any existing pressure on the radial nerve. Surgery is often recommended in more severe cases, especially those in which the wrist feels weak or even droopy or it becomes too difficult to extend the fingers.

What are the consequences of not treating it?

It is important to treat any of these symptoms and after treatment allow the elbow to rest. Ignoring this could lead to irreversible damage in your elbow, and ultimately lead to a disability.