Do you have numbness and tingling in your hand? Do you sit with your elbow bent for prolonged periods of time? Do you have pain in your elbow? If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, you may have cubital tunnel syndrome.
In short, this is an injury to the ulnar nerve that results in elbow pain and other symptoms. While not regularly heard of, research is showing that this injury is actually a fairly common occurrence among patients. There is generally a higher number of male patients with it and the chances of development also increase with age.
The good news is there are solutions to this problem and ways to move forward. This guide will fill you in on all the information you need to know!
What is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
In order to understand what cubital tunnel syndrome is we have to go back to some basic anatomy. There are nerves running all through your body. These nerves allow the body to feel sensations by transferring signals to the brain from all the different areas. Along the same pathway, the brain will send signals back out to those areas of how to respond.
So these nerves are very important for our daily life and proper functioning; if they become damaged or interrupted our body cannot function properly. Meaning, the signals that the brain sends for the muscles to move don't get through and the action cannot be completed which can be very detrimental.
One of these nerves is the ulnar nerve which runs from your neck along the inside of your arm all the way down to your pinky and ring fingers. You probably know it as your funny bone. And you've probably hit it against something and been in some pain!
Cubital tunnel syndrome happens when this ulnar nerve is injured in some way and becomes swollen. This swelling makes it a lot harder for the signals to get through and like we already talked about that causes real problems to regular function.
What Causes Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
Cubital tunnel syndrome is kind of a mystery in a lot of ways because often the cause is unknown.
While sometimes the cause isn't really obvious, there are times when it is very clear how the injury happened. Damage to the bones (like a bone spur or a broken bone) in that area can have an effect on the way the nerves operate by decreasing the pathway for the nerve to go through.
A more common cause (but harder to pinpoint) would be an extended period of time with the elbow bent in the same position. Like sleeping with your elbow bent or leaning on it regularly. These positions can make the tunnel shift pushing on the nerve causing elbow pain.
With such a variety of ways that the nerve can be damaged, it can be tricky to nail down the exact problem. But it is important to try because that can aid in recovery.
What Are the Symptoms of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
Unlike the causes, there is a relatively small list of symptoms linked to cubital tunnel syndrome. They often include some time of elbow pain or elbow discomfort.
Other very common symptoms are numbness or tingling in the pinky and ring fingers. The sensation of the limbs "falling asleep" is what you are looking for but more often than normal. It may even last longer than normal as well. This tingling is often more common at nighttime than other times of the day as well.
Some patients experience pain or burning at the elbow. And extreme cases can lead to muscle weakness in the hand that affects grip and the ability to hold onto things.
As you can see, these symptoms can really mess with daily life and get in the way.
How Do I Get an Official Diagnosis?
When these symptoms start to occur regularly, you can go to your medical provider to get an official diagnosis. This diagnosis may help with future treatment options.
Most likely, your provider will run routine exams and collect your medical history. They may ask you about specific routines or common actions in your day-to-day life, check for injuries that could be related, and look for potential causes through a physical exam.
Your provider may then run a variety of tests (or refer you to specialists to run them) to see if there is damage done to the nerve:
- Electromyogram (EMG)- this test studies how the muscles connected with the ulnar nerve function
- Nerve conduction study- this test shows how the signals are moving along the pathways and how quickly
- X-ray- focuses more on the bones to see if that is the cause of the problem
It is highly unlikely that you will need all of these tests for an official diagnosis but one will probably have to be done to confirm. An official diagnosis is mostly needed for extreme treatment measures that we will discuss further later.
What Are the Treatments for Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
The treatment for cubital tunnel syndrome varies greatly depending on the severity of the nerve damage.
If the elbow pain and nerve problems stemmed from a specific injury, like a hard fall or sprain, recovery from that injury will have to happen to fix it. There are a variety of treatment options available like ice, compression, heat, or over the counter medications.
Another possible treatment would be a more holistic approach, including supplements aimed at reducing inflammation (which is the ultimate cause of the nerve problems in this syndrome). Often more natural remedies can push the body to work towards complete healing by not hiding the pain as much so you can really work on the underlying problem.
Your healthcare provider who is treating your cubital tunnel syndrome may also look at your daily routine and actions to suggest changes that could help. This could be changing your sleeping position or altering how you sit at your desk at work. These easy changes can reduce strain on the nerve and relieve symptoms.
That is really the best-case scenario.
The worst case can lead to necessary surgery. Luckily, that is only for the very worst cases when other treatment options have not been successful. Most providers will likely try a variety of other options before resorting to surgery as it is more invasive and the recovery is longer.
Can Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Be Prevented?
In most cases, cubital tunnel syndrome can be prevented (or easily reversed) with simple changes. This is especially true when the action could potentially be causing the nerve damage or elbow pain can be pinpointed.
So if you are sleeping with your elbow bent, you can try to change the way you sleep by being mindful or using a splint to change that.
If you think you are at risk for this type of nerve problem, take a look at your regular actions or position. See if there is an extended period of time where your elbow is bent and if it can be changed. It may seem too simple, but prevention with these changes is possible.
Generally, taking care of your health and paying attention to any discomfort or signs of problems is a good place to start. Regular stretching and movement reduce the chances of overuse and the following problems.
What Are the Next Steps I Should Take?
Now that we've covered all of the different aspects of cubital tunnel syndrome, you can make a more informed decision as to what to do next.
A good place to start is to do a thorough investigation of your daily life.
Are you putting your body in compromising positions that can lead to these nerve problems? Are you giving your body a chance to move and function properly? Are you filling your body with products that will help keep it healthy and strong to prevent injuries?
The problem connected with cubital tunnel syndrome can range anywhere from mildly annoying to downright inconvenient and can even be dangerous. It is very important to figure out where you are on that scale and reach out for the proper treatments.
A promising aspect of this injury is that it can often be easily treated and most often completely reversed. Just like prolonged exposure to a certain position can cause injury that triggers discomfort from inflammation, prolonged exposure to a better position can lead to relief of the symptoms.