The cubital tunnel syndrome is very much familiar with something you may know of: the carpal tunnel syndrome. Although different in their essence, these two syndromes do share things in common and it is definitely important that you know how to distinguish between them.
It is also important that you inform yourself properly on the topic if you have been diagnosed with the cubital tunnel syndrome because this will help you further on as well.
With that being said, what is cubital tunnel syndrome, what are its causes, what are its symptoms and maybe even more importantly, how can it be treated? Will surgery be needed? All these questions (and more) will be answered below.
The Cubital Tunnel Syndrome: The Basics
The cubital tunnel syndrome is a medical condition characterized by entrapment or pinching of the nerves in the area of the elbow.
It is essential that you know that although the symptoms of these two syndromes can appear to be very much alike, the causes that lead to the development of the cubital tunnel syndrome and of the carpal tunnel syndrome are quite different.
In the case of the first, the ulnar nerve is entrapped in the cubital tunnel, while in the case of the second the median nerve is entrapped in the carpal tunnel.
Usually, the ulnar nerve-related problems will make symptoms appear especially in the area of the little finger and in half of the ring finger as well, as these are the fingers with which this nerve communicates the most.
The symptoms shown can be very much like those that appear in the case of the carpal tunnel syndrome (or in the case of the radial tunnel syndrome, for that matter): pain, tingling, weakness, feeling that the hand/fingers are useless, inability to pinch or grip properly, and so on. In the worst cases of the cubital tunnel syndrome, a claw-like deformity of the hand can appear as well.
Other types of entrapment that can appear to the ulnar nerve include Guyon’s canal syndrome (when the ulnar nerve is entrapped while passing through the wrist).
This particular version of the ulnar nerve entrapment is encountered especially in the case of the cyclists (who put pressure on the bicycle’s handlebars) and in the case of those who work at a computer for extended periods of time (case in which they will most likely compress their wrists on the surface of the desk when using the mouse, for example).
The Causes That Lead to Ulnar Nerve Entrapment
The causes that lead to the development of the cubital tunnel syndrome are quite straightforward in most of the cases and they are mostly related to the position of the elbow. There are certain things, for example, that will make a person more prone to develop this syndrome and they include:
- Sleeping with the elbow very bent (such as when sleeping with one hand under your pillow to hold your head for example)
- Bending and leaning on your elbow on hard surfaces a lot
- Bending the elbow for extended periods of time (including when talking on the phone for prolonged periods of time)
- Pressing the elbows on the armchairs when typing
- Leaning the elbow on the wheel while driving
Putting a diagnosis on the cubital tunnel syndrome can be quite easy as well and in many cases a specialist will only need physical examination to find the correct diagnosis.
Sometimes, the specialist may also order an electromyography, an examination that tests the health of the muscles as well as the health of the nerves that control them to spot the precise spot in which the issue has appeared (and the severity of the syndrome in the case of certain patients).
What Treatment is there for the Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
Fortunately, in most of the cases the cubital tunnel syndrome will not need very special treatment and it is very often that the symptoms can disappear once the patient changes the position of the elbow that caused the nerve entrapment to begin with.
For instance, if someone has developed this syndrome as a result of the way in which they sleep, simply changing the sleep position could help the nerve release itself (and thus, the symptoms will lower in intensity).
Sometimes, the patients may need some help with controlling their elbow’s position and with removing the initial cause of their nerve entrapment issue.
For instance, some patients may have to wear splints during the sleep to avoid over-bending the elbows. Also, some patients may have to wear a protective pad over their elbows (or, better said, over the so-called “funny bone” in the elbow – the spot that will cause tingling sensations when pressed too hard).
In the worst case scenario, surgery may be recommended, but the good news is that most of the patients respond to this kind of treatment.
There are 3 main types of surgery that can be performed to release the pressure that is put on the nerve: move the nerve towards the front of the elbow, moving the nerve under muscle (or in between muscles, or even under a layer of fat) and trim the elbow bump under which the nerve is entrapped. In 85% of the cases, patients respond to one of these types of surgery.
Post-surgery care is important too and some patients may have to restrict the movement of their elbows. Some will see an almost immediate decrease in the numbness and tingling and some will also need recovery therapy to regain the strength in the hand and elbow (and this can last up to several months).
In addition to supporting the elbow properly and in addition to performing surgery to release the nerve, the doctor may also have to recommend traditional medication as well.
Anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids are among the most commonly recommended types of drugs administered in such cases. Hot and cold therapies, ultrasound treatment and other forms of treatment may be recommended as well.