Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

In previous posts, we’ve discussed several chronic conditions that can affect dentists in particular, as their jobs require them to hold unnatural, static positions for extended periods of time while continuously gripping instruments. This puts tremendous stress on their musculoskeletal systems, especially their hands, and this is, in part, why dentists experience nearly four times the prevalence of hand, wrist and arm pain found in the general public.

While most dentists and surgeons are likely familiar with carpal tunnel syndrome, there are other conditions affecting the hands that can be just as debilitating. In this post we will examine the causes, diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment of cubital tunnel syndrome, a similar condition that arises from nerve impingement at the elbow.

Overview

Cubital tunnel syndrome is a condition that involves pressure or stretching of the ulnar nerve (also known as the “funny bone” nerve) that runs in a groove on the inner side of the elbow. This can cause numbness or tingling in the ring and small fingers, pain in the forearm, and/or weakness in the hand. Those suffering from cubital tunnel syndrome can find it difficult or impossible to function with the same level of dexterity that they used to have.

Causes

Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve becomes compressed or irritated at the elbow, but the exact cause of this is often unknown. There are several factors that can lead to nerve irritation such as:

  • Keeping your elbow bent for long periods of time
  • Repeatedly bending your elbow
  • Leaning on your elbow for long periods of time
  • Repetitive activities that require the elbow to be flexed
  • Prior fractures or dislocations of the elbow

Diagnosis

In order to diagnose cubital tunnel syndrome, a physician will perform a medical history review and physical examination. The examination will include an evaluation of the sensation of the hand and fingers as well as a test of your elbow reflex. Additional screening may be required, including:

  • X-rays: to check for bone spurs, arthritis, or other places that the bone may be compressing the nerve
  • Nerve conduction studies: to determine how well the nerve is working and to help identify where it is being compressed
  • Electromyogram: a test that measures the electrical discharges produced in the muscles

Symptoms

Generalized symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome include:

  • Numbness and tingling in the ring finger and pinky finger, usually occurring when the elbow is bent (such as when driving or holding a phone)
  • Feeling of pins and needles or the feeling of the hand “falling asleep” in the ring and pinky finger
  • Weakening of the grip and difficulty with finger coordination, especially when manipulating objects

Severe symptoms can include:

  • Weakness in the ring and little fingers
  • Decreased hand grip
  • Muscle wasting in the hand
  • Curling up of the pinky and ring finger along with pain, or a claw-like deformity of the hand

Treatment

Mild symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome can be managed with home remedies such as:

  • Avoiding activities that require you to keep your arm bent for long periods of time
  • Avoiding leaning on your elbow or putting pressure on the inside of your arm
  • Keeping your elbow straight at night when sleeping by wrapping a towel around your elbow or wearing an elbow pad backwards
  • Performing nerve gliding exercise

More severe cases of cubital tunnel syndrome may require medical interventions such as:

  • Use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce swelling around the nerve
  • Use of corticosteroids
  • Bracing or splinting
  • Surgery to increase the size of the cubital tunnel or to transpose the nerve in order to relieve the pressure

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose. Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

American Society for Surgery of the Hand, http://www.assh.org

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/

Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org

WebMD, www.webmd.com

Healthline, www.healthline.com

Dental Products Report, dentalproductsreport.com

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