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Cubital Tunnel Syndrome: Treatment & Exercises

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Cubital tunnel syndrome is a cousin condition to carpal tunnel syndrome, something almost everyone has heard of in an era where we spend so much time using computers. This lesson will explain cubital tunnel syndrome and the treatment options available.

What Is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?

Have you ever hit your 'funny bone' - that sweet spot around your elbow that causes a temporary onslaught of pain and tingling in your arm? It's a peculiar name because when you hit it, it's the opposite of funny, at least until the pain goes away. In reality, what you're doing is hitting your ulnar nerve, a nerve running through your arm that usually sits near the surface of the skin around the elbow. The ulnar nerve runs the length of the arm and is one of the main nerves involved in controlling the muscles of the hand.

The ulnar nerve runs the length of the arm, over the elbow, ending in the outer hand.
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Normally, the ulnar nerve functions as it should; it rests in a groove in the elbow and doesn't cause problems (outside of the occasional funny bone bump). However, this nerve sometimes becomes problematic. Any activity that puts extra pressure on the ulnar nerve can cause cubital tunnel syndrome, a condition that leads to pain, tingling, numbness, or muscle weakness in the arm or hand. Over time, these symptoms can worsen, leading to lack of control over hand muscles and a 'claw-like' appearance of the hand. Typically, the ring and small fingers are most affected because the ulnar nerve ends at the outer part of the hand.

What Causes Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?

As we now know, cubital tunnel syndrome is caused by extra pressure on the ulnar nerve, usually around the elbow. This extra pressure can be caused by a number of things, like resting on the elbows (especially on hard surfaces) or repetitive physical movements that eventually aggravate the ulnar nerve. Keeping the elbow bent for long periods (common while sleeping or talking on the phone) can also cause cubital tunnel syndrome. Some cases are also caused by abnormal bone growth in the elbow, cysts around the elbow, or swelling around the nerve.

Diagnosing and Treating Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Now that we've reviewed what cubital tunnel syndrome is and what the causes are, we can focus on diagnosing and treating the condition. When a person experiences long-term tingling, numbness, pain, or weakness in their arm or hand, a doctor will launch an investigation to figure out what's going on.

One way of investigating is through the use of electromyography, a procedure that analyzes the electrical signals passing between the nerves and the muscles. If the ulnar nerve is over-reacting to impulses, it will appear in this test through the presence of higher-than-usual electrical signals.

Okay, so we now know that the tingling is caused by cubital tunnel syndrome. How can we treat it? In mild cases, we can work on managing the symptoms and preventing the condition from getting worse. Over-the-counter pain medications can help alleviate some symptoms, as can wearing elbow pads if you are an elbow leaner.

In cases where a person sleeps with their arm bent, splinting the arm can help keep it straight throughout the night. Heat or ice therapy can also help with the pain or other symptoms.

In more serious cases where permanent nerve damage may be occurring, surgical intervention might be necessary. The ulnar nerve can be physically moved to a spot where it's less likely to be aggravated, scar tissue can be removed from the affected area, or the elbow bone can be shaved down to give the ulnar nerve more room. Post-surgery recovery can take a while, and some form of physical therapy may be necessary to regain function of the arm or hand.

Exercises to Prevent or Treat Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Physical therapy or independent exercises can help prevent or treat cubital tunnel syndrome from developing or worsening. The key is to stretch out the arm, reducing the pressure placed on the ulnar nerve, and avoiding actions or activities that aggravate the nerve.

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