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What is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?

Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve, also known as the “funny bone” nerve, becomes compressed or irritated as it passes through the cubital tunnel, a narrow passageway on the inside of the elbow. This nerve is responsible for sensation in the ring and little fingers and controls some of the muscles in the hand and forearm. When the ulnar nerve is compressed, it can affect these areas, leading to various symptoms.

Causes and Risk Factors

Several factors can contribute to the development of cubital tunnel syndrome:

  • Prolonged Elbow Flexion: Keeping the elbow bent for extended periods, such as during sleep or phone use, can stretch and irritate the ulnar nerve.
  • Pressure on the Elbow: Leaning on the elbow for prolonged periods can compress the nerve.
  • Repetitive Movements: Activities involving repetitive elbow bending or straightening can increase the risk of developing this condition.
  • Elbow Injuries: Previous fractures or dislocations can lead to swelling or scar tissue that compresses the nerve.
  • Anatomical Variations: Some individuals may have a naturally narrower cubital tunnel, making them more susceptible to nerve compression.


Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome can vary in severity and may include:

  • A sensation of “pins and needles” in the ring and little fingers, especially when the elbow is bent
  • Difficulty with finger coordination and grip strength, making tasks like typing or opening jars challenging
  • Aching pain on the inside of the elbow, which may radiate to the forearm and hand
  • In severe cases, the muscles controlled by the ulnar nerve may begin to atrophy

Diagnostic Process

Diagnosing cubital tunnel syndrome involves a detailed evaluation by a healthcare provider. The process typically includes:

  • Medical History: Discussing your symptoms, daily activities, and any previous elbow injuries with your doctor.
  • Physical Examination: Assessing the range of motion, strength, and sensation in the hand and arm. Special tests, such as Tinel’s sign, where tapping over the nerve causes tingling, may be performed.
  • Imaging Tests: X-rays or MRI scans to identify any structural abnormalities or previous injuries contributing to the condition.
  • Nerve Conduction Studies: Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction velocity (NCV) tests to assess the function of the ulnar nerve and pinpoint the location of compression.

Treatment Options

Conservative Care

For many patients, non-surgical treatments can effectively alleviate the symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome:

  • Activity Modification: Avoiding activities that exacerbate symptoms and finding ways to keep the elbow in a neutral position can help reduce nerve irritation.
  • Bracing or Splinting: Wearing a brace or splint, particularly at night, to keep the elbow straight and reduce pressure on the nerve.
  • Anti-inflammatory Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as NSAIDs can help reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Physical Therapy: Exercises to strengthen the muscles around the elbow, improve flexibility, and promote nerve gliding.

Surgical Treatment

When non-surgical treatments do not provide sufficient relief, or if there is significant nerve compression, surgery may be necessary. The primary surgical option for cubital tunnel syndrome is cubital tunnel release. This procedure involves making an incision along the inside of the elbow to access the ulnar nerve. The surgeon then releases the nerve from any structures compressing it, which may involve cutting the ligament that forms the roof of the cubital tunnel. This release creates more space for the ulnar nerve, reducing pressure and allowing for improved nerve function.

Cubital tunnel release is designed to relieve the symptoms of nerve compression, such as pain, numbness, and weakness, and prevent further damage to the ulnar nerve. It is typically performed under regional or general anesthesia, and the choice of anesthesia depends on the patient’s needs and the surgeon’s recommendation.

Recovery and Rehabilitation

Recovery from cubital tunnel syndrome, whether treated conservatively or surgically, involves a combination of rest, rehabilitation exercises, and regular follow-up appointments. Physical therapy plays a crucial role in regaining strength and flexibility. Patients are advised to avoid activities that could strain the elbow and follow their healthcare provider’s recommendations to ensure a smooth recovery.

Managing Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Living with cubital tunnel syndrome requires proactive management to alleviate symptoms and prevent recurrence. Making ergonomic adjustments at work, avoiding prolonged elbow flexion, and engaging in prescribed exercises can significantly improve your condition. Regular check-ups with your healthcare provider will help monitor your progress and adjust treatments as needed.

If you suspect you have cubital tunnel syndrome or are experiencing symptoms, contact Excel Health for a comprehensive evaluation and personalized treatment plan. Our dedicated team is committed to providing the highest quality care to help you regain function and comfort in your daily activities.

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