Running from your neck to your hand is a nerve called the ulnar. It helps you control muscles and feel sensations in your forearm, hand and fingers. Cubital tunnel syndrome happens when that nerve is irritated or compressed. A compressed ulnar can cause various uncomfortable and severe symptoms that, if left untreated, can lead to muscle weakness and atrophy.
Cubital tunnel syndrome, also called ulnar nerve entrapment, happens when your ulnar nerve gets irritated or compressed (squeezed) at the inside of your elbow.
Nerves are bundles of string-like fibers that send and receive messages between your brain and your body via electrical and chemical changes in the cells. There are three main nerves in your arm: the median, the ulnar and the radial. The ulnar goes from your neck down your arm and to your hand.
You may have cubital tunnel syndrome if your ulnar nerve is compressed or irritated at the elbow. The nerve may also be affected higher on the arm or at the wrist.
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Did you know that your funny bone isn’t a bone? It’s a nerve. That unique, almost electric sensation you feel when you hit your funny bone is actually the compression of your ulnar nerve.
Your ulnar goes through a tunnel of tissues called the cubital tunnel, which travels under a bony bump on the inside of your elbow called the medial epicondyle. The space is narrow, and there's only a little tissue protecting it. That spot is where your ulnar nerve is most vulnerable. After the medial epicondyle, the ulnar nerve continues under the muscles on the inside of your forearm and into your hand — on the side that has your little finger (pinky). When it enters your hand, it goes through another tunnel called Guyon's canal.
Because of your ulnar nerve, you can control some of the bigger muscles in your forearm (the ones that help you grip objects), feel your little finger, feel half of your ring finger and control many of the muscles in your hand. Those muscles in your hand help you perform fine movements such as typing on a keyboard and playing a musical instrument.
Some factors that put you at risk for cubital tunnel syndrome include:
Just because you’ve had these symptoms doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get cubital tunnel syndrome. It just means that you’re more at risk than the average person.
Cubital tunnel syndrome affects your pinky and ring finger. Carpal tunnel syndrome affects your thumb, index finger and middle finger.
Your healthcare provider might not be able to narrow down the exact cause of your cubital tunnel syndrome. Possible causes include:
See your healthcare provider if you've had the following symptoms for more than six weeks or if they're severe. You could get muscle wasting in your hand if you wait too long to get treatment for the compressed nerve. But if you do get treatment, your symptoms should improve or go away.
Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome include:
Inner elbow pain and numbness and tingling in your hand are the most common symptoms. This happens most often when your elbow is bent. Your elbow might be bent when you:
Your healthcare provider will likely start the diagnosis process by asking questions about your symptoms. Then they’ll order several tests, which may include:
Your healthcare provider might ask the following questions at your appointment:
There are both surgical and nonsurgical treatments for cubital tunnel syndrome. Healthcare providers prefer non-invasive treatments first and usually start with the nonsurgical options. They include:
If nonsurgical treatments don't improve your cubital tunnel syndrome, your nerve is very compressed or the compression has caused muscle weakness, your healthcare provider might recommend surgery. You'll get sent to an orthopaedic surgeon. There are a few types of surgeries that help with cubital tunnel syndrome. They include:
These procedures are usually outpatient, but you might need to stay one night at the hospital. You’ll likely need to wear a splint on your arm for about two to three weeks. Physical therapy is sometimes necessary to regain your motion and strength.
Surgery doesn’t guarantee that cubital tunnel syndrome will go away permanently. However, the outcome is generally positive.
Recovery can take many months. Nerves don’t heal as quickly as other parts of your body.
Although it might not be possible to prevent cubital tunnel syndrome, there are a few ways you can help reduce your risk:
You might experience a problem called atrophy (muscle wasting in your hand) if you don’t get treatment for cubital tunnel syndrome. Your muscles could weaken. Your hand might look bony and not function as well.
Contact your healthcare provider if your symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome are severe or if they’ve lasted for more than six weeks. It’s important to get treatment because cubital tunnel syndrome can weaken and shrink the muscles in your hand (muscle wasting), causing clumsiness and additional pain.
Consider asking your healthcare provider the following questions:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A healthy ulnar nerve is important for arm and hand use and sensation of your pinky and half of your ring finger. It helps you control muscles in your forearm and muscles in your hand. When that nerve is compressed or irritated, you might have symptoms including pain, numbness, tingling and the sensation that your extremity is falling asleep. See your healthcare provider if you experience these symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome.
No one wants to be in pain all day. You don’t just have to put up with the symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome. Treatment might improve your quality of life, and the sooner you get treatment, the sooner you’ll be in less pain.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/25/2021.
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