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Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

What is cubital tunnel syndrome?

Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve, which passes through the cubital tunnel (a tunnel of muscle, ligament, and bone) on the inside of the elbow, is injured and becomes inflamed, swollen, and irritated.

Cubital tunnel syndrome causes pain that feels a lot like the pain you feel when you hit the "funny" bone in your elbow. The "funny" bone in the elbow is actually the ulnar nerve, a nerve that crosses the elbow. The ulnar nerve begins in the side of your neck and ends in your fingers.

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What causes cubital tunnel syndrome?

Cubital tunnel syndrome may occur when a person frequently bends the elbows (when pulling, reaching, or lifting), leans on their elbow a lot, or has an injury to the area.

Arthritis, bone spurs, and previous fractures or dislocations of the elbow can also cause cubital tunnel syndrome.

In many cases, the cause is not known.

What are the symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome?

The following are the most common symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Numbness and tingling in the hand and/or ring and little finger, especially when the elbow is bent
  • Hand pain
  • Weak grip and clumsiness due to muscle weakness in the affected arm
  • Aching pain on the inside of the elbow

The symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome may resemble other medical conditions or problems, including medial epicondylitis (golfer's elbow). Always see a doctor for a diagnosis.

How is cubital tunnel syndrome diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, diagnostic tests for cubital tunnel syndrome may include:

  • Nerve conduction test. A test to find out how fast signals travel down a nerve to find a compression or constriction of the nerve.
  • Electromyogram (EMG). This test checks nerve and muscle function and may be used to test the forearm muscles controlled by the ulnar nerve. If the muscles do not work the way they should, it may be a sign that there is a problem with the ulnar nerve.
  • X-ray. This is done to look at the bones of the elbow and see if you have arthritis or bone spurs in your elbow.

How is cubital tunnel syndrome treated?

The most effective treatment for cubital tunnel syndrome is stopping the activity that is causing the problem. Treatment may include:

  • Resting and stopping any activity that aggravates the condition, such as bending the elbow
  • A splint or foam elbow brace worn at night (to limit movement and reduce irritation)
  • Using an elbow pad (to protect against chronic irritation from hard surfaces)
  • Anti-inflammatory medications (such as ibuprofen or naproxen)
  • Nerve gliding exercises

If these treatments do not work, the doctor may talk to you about:

  • Steroid injections to help reduce swelling and pain
  • Surgery

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Can I prevent cubital tunnel syndrome?

To prevent cubital tunnel syndrome:

  • Keep your arms flexible and strong.
  • Avoid resting on your elbows – especially on a hard surface.
  • Warm up before exercising or using your arms for sports or other repetitive movements.

When should I call my health care provider?

Call your health care provider if you have:

  • Pain or trouble moving that affects your regular daily activities
  • Pain doesn’t get better or gets worse with treatment

Key points

  • Cubital tunnel syndrome is a problem with the ulnar nerve, which passes through the inside of the elbow. It causes pain that feels a lot like the pain you feel when you hit the "funny" bone in your elbow.
  • Cubital tunnel syndrome may occur when a person frequently bends the elbows, leans on their elbow a lot, or has an injury to the area. Arthritis, bone spurs, and previous fractures or dislocations of the elbow can also cause it. In many cases, the cause is not known.
  • The most common symptom of cubital tunnel syndrome is numbness, tingling, and pain in the hand and/or ring and little finger, especially when the elbow is bent.
  • Cubital tunnel syndrome can be treated with rest and medicines to help with pain and inflammation. Exercises may help too. In some cases, surgery may be done.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 1/28/2014
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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