Medical Library: Elbow – Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Cubital tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure or pinching of the ulnar nerve at the elbow. This is a boney area and leaning on your elbows or sitting and resting your elbows on an armrest for extended periods of time can put pressure on the nerve as it courses around the inside of the elbow or the “funny bone.” Keeping the elbows bent for long periods of time such as holding a phone to your ear or sleeping with tightly bent elbows stretches the nerve. Symptoms may become apparent with repetitive bending and straightening of the elbow. Cubital tunnel syndrome may also be caused from elbow injuries or elbow fractures. Individuals may experience pain, tingling or numbness in the ring and small fingers. As symptoms progress, there may be a decrease in pinch strength, difficulty manipulating small objects or dropping of items. In long standing cases, the muscles at the base of the small finger and between the thumb and index finger may actually get smaller and atrophy. The ring and small fingers may develop a permanent loss of sensation and the ability to distinguish hot/cold, sharp/dull, smooth/rough, etc.

Early treatment is important. A hand therapist educates the individual in sleeping positions and avoidance of resting postures or activities that could contribute to the symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome. They may custom fabricate a splint that is worn at night to avoid the bent position and protect the nerve. Specific exercises to enhance nerve gliding and modalities such as ice/heat and ultrasound have been shown to be helpful with pain relief and blood flow.

Hand therapy after surgery is very important. This may include controlling of post-operative swelling and pain, custom splint fabrication, specific motion exercises to the elbow, forearm, wrist and hand; nerve gliding, scar management, desensitization of the scar and hand, and graded strengthening.

Elbow therapy is performed at our Certified Hand Center, located in Rockford.
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