Pain has a protective purpose.
What is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
When you get numbness or tingling in your ring and small finger for no apparent reason, that is usually caused by a condition called cubital tunnel syndrome. One of the major nerves of the arm, called the ulnar nerve, is responsible for powering several of the muscles in the forearm and hand and feeling a sensation in parts as well. As the ulnar nerve travels down the arm and around the elbow, it goes through a tight bottleneck called the cubital tunnel before it enters the forearm. If the nerve gets pinched or compressed too often in this area, it can send pain or tingling signals down to the ring and small finger, which is referred to as cubital tunnel syndrome.
Ulnar Nerve Anatomy and Mechanism
The ulnar nerve is a two-way street. Like other nerves, the ulnar nerve consists of neurons. Afferent neurons carry trauma (sensory) signals from the source (e.g., your finger) to your brain. Efferent neurons carry pain (motor) signals back to the trauma source.
Compression can be caused by nerve swelling, repetitive elbow movement, injury to the elbow, and elbow arthritis. In addition, nerve instability causing the nerve to move around too much can produce symptoms similar to cubital tunnel syndrome.
Mild symptoms are often alleviated by straightening the arm which temporarily relieves the compression. Frequently, symptoms occur at night when you are asleep, and keeping the arm straight in bed will minimize the discomfort. One trick is to place a rolled towel around the arm to keep it straight. There are also special braces that are made to have the same effect.
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms
You should see an orthopedic surgeon if you have any of the following symptoms for a prolonged period. Symptoms include:
- Elbow pain
- Numbness and tingling progressing down inside your forearm and into the ring and little fingers
- Weakness in your wrist and hand
- Popping sensation on the inside of your elbow
- Atrophy of your hand muscles
The definitive diagnosis is usually made using a test called an electromyography (EMG) and/or nerve conduction study (NCS). This can also rule out other causes of nerve pain that may cause similar problems.
Cubital tunnel syndrome in most cases is successfully treated with reduction of activity, anti-inflammatory medication, and elbow braces. Sometimes more difficult cases are treated with steroid injections. More serious or persistent pain might be relieved with surgery. This consists of nerve decompression by making more room in the cubital tunnel. In some cases, the ulnar nerve is moved to and secured in a more protected spot.
Expert Orthopedic Care
Dr. Steven S. Goldberg is an orthopedic surgeon in Naples, Florida. After years as an orthopedic surgeon at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Goldberg moved to Naples where he has practiced for 15 years. He and his professional staff have extensive experience treating cubital tunnel syndrome. Please contact us today if you have the described persistent symptoms.