Cubital Tunnel Syndrome: Sometimes the Elbow’s "Funny Bone" Is No Laughing Matter by Dr. Alejandro Badia
Sometimes, the elbow’s “funny bone” is just not that funny, especially when the nerve passing in it – the ulnar nerve – becomes irritated and inflamed due to chronic pressure and impingement. This is a condition called cubital tunnel syndrome. Early diagnosis is essential.
In fact, experts contend recovery rates are nearly 90 percent when the condition is treated within a year of onset but drop to under 70 percent if a patient does not get help beyond a year. As a nerve-compression disorder of the upper limbs, cubital tunnel syndrome is second only to carpal tunnel syndrome in frequency of occurrence.
The ulnar nerve lies directly behind the medial epicondyle – the elbow’s bony protrusion or “funny bone” – and is vulnerable to pressure and constriction. When the pressure on the nerve becomes great enough to disturb the way the nerve works, then numbness, tingling and pain may develop along the inner portion of the elbow and in the forearm, hand and fingers, specifically the "pinky" and ring fingers. In severe cases, the condition can lead to weakness in the fingers, decreased hand grip and wasting of hand muscles.
Unless properly diagnosed and treated, nerve compression disorders worsen over time and can cause nerve damage that becomes permanent or, in the best of circumstances, requires months of healing. When ignored, the hand loses fine dexterity and task such as typing, playing the piano may become near impossible.
The cubital tunnel is anatomically similar although less defined than the carpal tunnel in the wrist. It is a narrow passageway, composed of ligament, muscle and bone, behind the inside edge of the elbow. The ulnar nerve runs through the cubital tunnel on its way down the forearm and into the hand where the nerve controls the thumb and small hand muscles.
Symptoms of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Symptoms of nerve compression within the cubital tunnel most frequently occur when the elbow is:
- rested on hard surfaces for extended periods
- exposed to repetitive bending and straightening, particularly during work-related activities like painting
- kept in a bent position, as happens while driving, sleeping or holding a phone
Other risks for developing the condition are:
- injury to the elbow
- presence of joint-inflammatory disorders like arthritis
- engagement in sports, particularly those involving throwing and overhead movements
The anatomy of the upper limb also may predispose some people to developing cubital tunnel syndrome. In those cases, the nerve may glide over the elbow’s bony bump as the elbow is bent and straightened. Eventually, the ongoing motion causes the nerve and connective tissue around it to become tender.
Treating Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Conservative therapy is normally the first-line treatment for the syndrome, including application of cold compresses, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, corticosteroid injections, prescribed exercises, changes in pattern of elbow use by avoiding activities that pressure the joint, wearing of a protective elbow pad – even splinting of the elbow at night to prevent over-bending it during sleep. However, should these approaches fail, surgical intervention may be required.
With endoscopic tunnel release, an innovative surgical procedure, an endoscope is inserted through a tiny incision in the elbow, enabling a surgeon to visualize the operating field and relieve tension on the ulnar nerve minimally invasively. Endoscopic tunnel release is quicker and less painful than standard surgical approaches and typically requires minimal recovery time, allowing folks back to most jobs within a week. Patients have experienced immediate relief of symptoms following the procedure. I have had several patients that noted relief in the recovery room when local anesthesia wore off!!
But, even newer treatments for cubital tunnel syndrome may be on the horizon. Two case reports published in the May 2019 issue of the journal Medicine indicate that pulsed radio frequency (PRF) stimulation applied to the ulna nerve at the medial epicondyle relieved the neuropathic pain of patients who had failed earlier therapy involving oral medication and steroid injections, however this will never replace the mechanical effect of actual nerve decompression in cases where the nerve has clear signs of compression.
Preventing Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
The best medicine, of course, is prevention, which is why I offer these tips to lower risk for cubital tunnel syndrome:
- Avoid resting the elbows hard surfaces for long periods of time.
- Take frequent breaks when performing activities requiring constant arm and elbow motion and avoid prolonged periods where the elbow is fully bent (flexed).
- Most importantly, if that “funny bone” is no laughing matter, contact an orthopedic specialist as soon as possible.
The information on 30Seconds.com is for informational and entertainment purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice. The information provided through this site should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, and is not a substitute for professional care. Always consult your personal healthcare provider.
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