Cubital Tunnel Syndrome (Ulnar Neuropathy)

Cubital tunnel syndrome at a glance

  • Cubital tunnel syndrome, also known as ulnar neuropathy, is the compression or irritation of the ulnar nerve, which runs through the groove in the center of the elbow (in the area commonly referred to as the funny bone).
  • Cubital tunnel syndrome is caused by repeat injury that causes scar tissue, pressure, or stress to the funny bone area, affecting the way the nerve operates and causing pain, similar to carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrist.
  • Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome include pain, numbness, and tingling through the fingers.
  • Treatment should start with conservative methods such as rest and stretching, but may require surgery for severe cases of cubital tunnel syndrome.

Causes of cubital tunnel syndrome

Similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome is caused by repetitive pressure put on the ulnar nerve, which runs alongside the bone at the elbow. The elbow joint provides little padding, so the nerve is more susceptible to compression.

Compression can be caused by habitual activities such as leaning your elbows on a hard surface, and bending the elbow for long periods of time (such as during sleep). Additionally, tissue surrounding the nerve may become thicker through injury or the muscle may become larger, compressing the nerve at the elbow.

Cubital tunnel syndrome may also result from abnormal bone growth or fluid buildup in the elbow or from physical activity that puts pressure on the ulnar nerve.

A direct blow to the groove of the elbow can hit the ulnar nerve, commonly called hitting your funny bone.

Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome

When the ulnar nerve becomes pinched, it can cause pain, numbness and tingling in the elbow that can extend into the fingers, especially when the elbow is bent or pressure is applied (such as leaning on a hard surface) for extended periods of time. In more severe cases, loss of strength in the fingers and a decreased ability to grip with the hand or fingers may also develop.

Some people also experience the ulnar nerve moving over the boney part of the elbow when the arm is bent and straightened, which can increasingly irritate the nerve over time.

If the nerve has been compressed for several weeks, muscle wasting or the hand becoming locked in a claw-like position can occur, so it’s important to see a doctor if cubital tunnel symptoms persist.

Treatment of cubital tunnel syndrome

At home treatment for cubital tunnel syndrome should include rest, stretching and anti-inflammatory medicines. Other conservative methods may include using a splint to keep the elbow from bending (such as during sleep), avoiding unnecessary pressure on the elbow during daily activities, and wearing a pad over the elbow to protect the “funny bone. Be sure to talk to your pharmacist before purchasing anti-inflammatories as these medications may be contraindicated as they may interact with other medications and medical conditions.

If the ulnar nerve is under severe pressure, surgery may be necessary to release or reposition the nerve and alleviate symptoms. Surgical procedures include cubital tunnel release, ulnar nerve anterior transportation and medial epicondylectomy.

If you are experience symptoms or elbow pain associated with cubital tunnel syndrome, contact us to schedule an appointment with one of our orthopedic specialists.