Chronic Pain

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome: What Causes it?

 Symptoms of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Both radial tunnel and cubital tunnel syndrome are not as well-known as their relative, carpal tunnel syndrome.

The difference is that cubital tunnel and carpal tunnel are characterized by weakness of the arm and hand muscles, tingling, numbness, and pain.

Radial tunnel syndrome is mostly characterized by weakness of the arm and hand muscles.

These syndromes are alike in that the common cause of all three of them is increased pressure on the nerves located in the wrist, elbow, or arm.

This pressure typically occurs when bone is pressing on, or trapping, connective tissue. Most of the time, radial tunnel and cubital tunnel syndromes can easily be dealt with by using some of the more conservative treatments.

However, as with carpal tunnel, in the more extreme cases, surgery will be required in order to reduce pressure on the nerve that is being affected.

Causes and Symptoms of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

The condition of cubital tunnel syndrome is also known as ulnar neuropathy and is a result of an increase in pressure on the ulnar nerve, which passes closely to the surface of the skin around the area of the elbow that is often referred to as your “funny bone.”

Some of the things that make you more likely to develop this condition are:

  • Leaning on your elbow on a regular basis, especially on a hard surface
  • Bending your elbow for a long period of time such as while talking on a phone or sleeping with your hand under your pillow

In some rare cases, the condition of cubital tunnel syndrome is a result of abnormal growth of bone in the elbow or due to extreme physical activities that put increased pressure on the ulnar nerve.

For example, baseball pitchers are at an increased risk of developing cubital tunnel syndrome because the twisting motion that is necessary to throw a slider can cause damage to the delicate ligaments that are located in the elbow.

Some of the early signs and symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome include the following:

Some of the more advanced signs and symptoms of the condition of cubital tunnel syndrome include the following:

  • Decreased hand grip
  • Weakness in pinky and ring fingers
  • Claw-like hand deformity- referred to as “ulnar claw”
  • Decreased ability to pinch thumb and pinky finger
  • Wasting away of hand muscles

If you are experiencing any of the above signs and symptoms, your physician may be able to give you a diagnosis of cubital tunnel syndrome- after performing a physical examination.

However, on the other hand, your physician may wish to do a nerve conduction test that is known as electromyography.

This is a procedure where electrodes will be placed into the muscles and on the skin to measure the overall health of your muscles as well as the nerve cells that control them.

This will help to confirm a diagnosis of cubital tunnel syndrome, identify which nerves are damaged, and how severe the condition is- whether the conservative treatments will likely work or you will need something more advanced, such as surgery.

Causes and Symptoms of Radial Tunnel Syndrome

On the other hand, the condition of radial tunnel syndrome is due to an increase in pressure on your radial nerve.

This is the nerve that runs by your bones and muscles of your forearm and elbow. The causes of radial tunnel syndrome include the following:

  • Lipomas- or noncancerous fatty tumors
  • Tumors of the bone
  • Inflammation of tissues around the radial nerve
  • Injury

Some of the signs and symptoms of the condition of radial tunnel syndrome include the following:

  • Cutting, stabbing, or piercing sensation at the top of your forearm or the back of your hand, especially when straightening your fingers and wrist.

Radial tunnel syndrome is different than cubital tunnel or carpal tunnel syndrome in that radial tunnel is very rarely characterized by tingling and/or numbness because the radial nerve primarily affects the muscles.

Just as with carpal tunnel or cubital tunnel syndrome, if you are experiencing any of these signs and symptoms, you will need to consult with your physician.

He or she may be able to diagnose you with this condition based upon physical exam and your description of your symptoms.

However, he or she may wish to do an electromyography in order to confirm the diagnosis of this condition, find out where the nerve damage is, and the severity/stage of the condition.

Treating Cubital Tunnel and Radial Tunnel Syndrome

In most cases, the condition of cubital tunnel syndrome will be able to be managed using conservative treatments, especially if the electromyography shows very little pressure on your ulnar nerve. In the mild cases of the condition of cubital tunnel, the following therapies are often effective:

  • Avoiding unnecessary pressure on the elbow during your daily activities
  • Wearing a splint while sleeping to avoid bending the elbow too much/far
  • Wear a protective brace/pad over “funny bone” during your daily activities

On the other hand, in cases where a splint/brace/pad does not help or the nerve compression is more extreme, approximately 85 percent of individuals with this condition typically respond to some form of surgery in order to relieve any pressure on the ulnar nerve.

These include surgeries that do the following:

  • Shift the ulnar nerve to the front of the elbow
  • Move the nerve to protect it under a muscle, within a muscle, or under a layer of fat
  • Decompressing the ulnar nerve
  • Trim the bump on the inner area of the elbow where the ulnar nerve passes through

You must keep in mind that if surgery is required to treat cubital tunnel syndrome, recovery will involve some restrictions on moving and lifting your elbow and you will require rehabilitation therapy.

Also, remember that the tingling and/or numbness may or may not improve right away, and recovery of strength in your wrist and hand will require several months.

Some of the more conservative treatments for the condition of radial tunnel syndrome include medications- both oral and injected, and elbow/wrist splints to avoid aggravating the radial nerve.

In some cases, individuals with this condition will be able to benefit from the following:

  • Ergonomic education
  • Stretching/strengthening exercises
  • Ultrasound
  • Heat/cold therapy
  • Nerve-gliding exercises

On the other hand, if the conservative treatments do not offer any relief after a period of three months, your physician may consider surgery as an option.

This is often recommended in the more extreme cases, especially where the wrist has become droopy/weak or it is hard to extend your fingers.

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