Ulnar nerve entrapment
is a condition where the ulnar nerve
becomes trapped or pinched
due to some physiological
The symptoms of ulnar nerve entrapment depend on where the nerve is being compressed.
Compression at the elbow, known as cubital tunnel syndrome, causes numbness in the small finger, half of the ring finger, and the back half of the hand over the small finger. Initially, the numbness is transient and usually occurs in the middle of the night or in the morning. The sensation is similar to hitting your "funny bone," but lasts a bit longer. Over time, the numbness is there all of the time, and weakness of the hand sets in. The "ulnar claw," or a position where the small and ring fingers curl up, occurs late in the disease and is a sign the nerve is severely affected.
The claw hand is worse for Guyon canal stenosis, or nerve compression at the wrist. This is an example of the ulnar paradox. Also, if the nerve is compressed at the wrist, the back of the hand will have normal sensation.
The ulnar nerve passes through many tunnels and outlets which could cause the nerve to be pinched. Some causes or origins noted could be:
- Problems originating at the neck (thoracic outlet syndrome, disease of the cervical spine)
- Brachial plexus abnormalities
- Elbow abnormalities (fractures, growth plate injuries, cubital tunnel problems, improper use)
- Wrist abnormalities (fractures, Guyon canal problems)
- Artery aneurysms or thrombosis
- Infections, tumors, diabetes, hypothyroidism, rheumatism, and alcoholism
Cubital tunnel syndrome
Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the Ulnar nerve is obstructed during its path along the outer edge of the elbow. This compression of the nerve often leads to a tingling or 'pins and needles' sensation in the little and ring fingers. Most cases will be minor and tend to come and go with time. Common causes are sleeping with the arm folded up, so the hand is at the person's neck and the elbow is sharply bent. These people frequently wake up with tingling in the fingers, because the nerve has been pinched or squeezed while asleep. Treatment of these types of causes are easy to remedy and can involve simply altering sleeping positions to avoid aggravating the elbow area. In more extreme cases however where tingling is persistent, surgery is an option to move the nerve away from the area.
Identifying which of the three hand nerves is impinged is usually quite simple. The ulnar nerve innervates the fourth and fifth fingers, and symptoms such as numbness, weakness, and tingling appear there. However, a complete diagnosis should identify the source of the impingement, and further testing may be necessary to determine which of many possible underlying causes is relevant.
Entrapment of the median nerve causes carpal tunnel syndrome
, which is characterized by numbness in the thumb, index, middle, and half of the ring finger. Compression of the radial nerve
causes numbness of the back of the hand and thumb, and is much more rare.
Some cases may be prevented by good posture and proper use of the elbow and arms, such as sleeping with the arm straight at the elbow instead of keeping it tightly bent, or keeping the head properly centered over the cervical spine instead of slouching.
In other cases, especially those caused by anatomic deformities, there is no effective prevention measure.
Effective treatment generally requires resolving the underlying cause. Physical therapy often provides relief. Surgery may be required for some causes, such as thoracic outlet syndrome
Many patients experience complete recovery, or have minor symptoms intermittently. A few patients have significant symptoms which persist.