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man holding arm due to pain caused by cubital tunnel syndrome

Is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Causing My Arm Pain?

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Cubital tunnel syndrome can cause pain on the inside of the forearm, the pinky finger and part of the ring finger. It happens when the ulnar nerve – one of three nerves that controls strength and function in the hands – becomes compressed at the inside of the elbow. The ulnar nerve gives sensation to the pinky and ring fingers.

What causes cubital tunnel syndrome?

Some sudden and ongoing medical conditions can contribute to increased pressure on the ulnar nerve which then can cause cubital tunnel syndrome. Those include:

  • Arthritis
  • Infection
  • Bone spurs
  • Cysts
  • Injury
  • Fracture
  • Repetitive movement

When the ulnar nerve is compressed, it can cause pain, numbness and weakness on the inside of the forearm, the pinky finger and part of the ring finger. These symptoms can worsen over time and can become more severe and frequent if the condition goes untreated.

Cubital tunnel vs. golfer’s elbow

Golfer’s elbow causes pain on the inside of your elbow and can sometimes extend to the inside of your forearm. It is not the same as cubital tunnel syndrome.

The medical term for golfer’s elbow is medial epicondylitis. Repeated stress on the muscles and tendons that control your wrist and fingers – like improper lifting, throwing or hitting – can cause golfer’s elbow.

Why is cubital tunnel worse at night?

Symptoms are often worst at night, partially due to the position in which we sleep. People with cubital tunnel syndrome often wake up with their hands feeling numb and tingly and they need to shake out their hands for relief.

Wearing an elbow splint overnight can help prevent the condition from getting worse at night. The splint holds the elbow in a more natural and extended position and decreases pressure on the ulnar nerve.

How is cubital tunnel syndrome diagnosed?

A hand specialist can usually diagnose cubital tunnel syndrome based on a patient’s medical history and a physical exam. Sometimes an electrodiagnostic study, or EMG, is necessary for confirmation. An electrodiagnostic study measures the electrical activity in nerves and muscles.

Will cubital tunnel syndrome go away on its own?

Cubital tunnel syndrome can be treated without surgery. It is recommended to modify or avoid activities and elbow positions that make symptoms worse. You can also take anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin or ibuprofen to help manage pain.

Other things like wearing a splint at night, occupational therapy and steroid injections might also help.

When does cubital tunnel syndrome require surgery?

If the pain doesn’t get better with non-surgical treatment, a hand specialist might recommend a surgical procedure known as an ulnar nerve decompression, or cubital tunnel release. The goal of this surgery is to relieve pressure on the ulnar nerve, which should improve symptoms.

During an ulnar nerve decompression, a surgeon identifies and releases tight layers of tissue that are compressing the ulnar nerve. This is done with an incision on the inside of the elbow where the ulnar nerve travels. The procedure takes about 30 minutes to complete, and patients go home the same day.

After surgery, a patient must wear a splint on their arm to support the elbow and wrist for two weeks. The splint and sutures are removed at the same time in the doctor’s office.

Cubital tunnel syndrome surgery recovery

After surgery, patients usually notice quick improvement in their symptoms. The amount of time it takes to notice improvement depends on how severe and for how long the ulnar nerve was compressed. For more extreme cases, it can take longer to notice improvement. Sometimes occupational therapy can assist in the recovery process.

When should I see a doctor about cubital tunnel syndrome?

If your cubital tunnel syndromes have not gotten better with nonsurgical treatment or if they’ve lasted longer than six weeks, contact your healthcare provider.

If you are experiencing symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome or need more information about cubital tunnel decompression surgery, call 504-842-4263 to make an appointment with Dr. Ross Dunbar.

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