Looking for information on the ulnar nerve? You’ve come to the right place to find out all your need to know on ulnar nerve entrapment causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatments and more.
What Is The Ulnar Nerve?
The ulnar nerve is responsible for finger movement and it controls forearm muscles enabling the hand to grip. Furthermore, the ulnar nerve transmits sensation to an area of the hand as well as the little finger and part of the ring finger.
The ulnar nerve runs from the neck and continues down through the shoulder. The nerve then passes through the cubital tunnel in the elbow travelling towards the wrist. The nerve enters the hand and terminates in the fingers.
As the ulnar nerve runs down the arm it’s quite close to the skin at certain points. A nerve that’s close to the surface of the skin in susceptible to damage due to lack of protection. When the ulnar nerve gets trapped it leads to a number of symptoms developing.
What Is Nerve Entrapment?
Nerve entrapment (compression) occurs when direct pressure is put on a nerve in the body. When the ulnar nerve is compressed it will not function and mobility will be affected. The nerve can be put under pressure at various points along the arm resulting in compression.
The ulnar nerve gets trapped in the collarbone, wrist and in the elbow. The elbow is the most common site for ulnar nerve compression leading to a condition called cubital tunnel syndrome.
What Are the Symptoms of Ulnar Nerve Entrapment?
When the ulnar nerve is compressed it can lead to symptoms developing around the elbow area, hands and fingers. To learn more about the symptoms associated with ulnar nerve entrapment its useful to look at some of the most common ones.
Common symptoms of ulnar nerve entrapment include:
Tingling And Loss of Feeling
Tingling and loss of feeling in the outside of the palm, little finger and part of the ring finger are symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome. The tingling or numbness is a result of direct pressure on the ulnar nerve. Numbness prevents the hand being able to pick up objects or carry out simple everyday tasks.
Cubital tunnel syndrome may lead to an aching around the inside area of the elbow. Inflammation due to the nerve being compressed in the cubital tunnel causes some discomfort.
A weakened grip is a symptom of ulnar nerve entrapment and its often called ulnar nerve neuropathy. Ulnar nerve neuropathy makes it difficult to pinch objects between the thumb and index finger. Muscle weakness in the hand is another symptom of ulnar nerve neuropathy which affects quality of life.
Difficulty Controlling Finger Movement
Due to the fact that the ulnar nerve controls the little finger and part of the ring finger any damage causes problems. Patients often have difficulty moving the two outer digits of the hand when the ulnar nerve is damaged. Lack of mobility in any of the fingers has a serious impact on daily life.
Pain in the hand, wrist and forearm is associated with ulnar nerve entrapment. Any pain or discomfort in these areas will affect hand and arm movement. Another complication is that when the arm or hand is painful it will not be used as much and muscle weakness is a possibility.
Cold sensitivity is a symptom of nerve injuries in the upper limbs including damage to the ulnar nerve. A medical study concluded that 75% of cold sensitivity cases resulted from ulnar nerve damage. The medical experts believe that the sensitivity is related to a disturbance of sensory and sympathetic fibers.
What Causes Ulnar Nerve Entrapment?
It’s useful to look at some of the causes of ulnar nerve entrapment to see if they can be avoided. Entrapment caused by injury or disease is not preventable but some nerve damage is.
The area where the ulnar nerve passes through the elbow is often referred to as the funny bone. Constant pressure around this area is a common cause of ulnar nerve compression. Leaning on hard surfaces or abnormal bone growth in the area compresses the ulnar nerve leading to complications.
People that spend long periods of time with a bent elbow are putting the ulnar nerve at risk of entrapment. Talking on cell phones or sleeping with one hand under a pillow puts the elbow in a bent position. Playing sports that require a bent elbow may lead to ulnar nerve entrapment and the development of symptoms.
Injuries such as elbow dislocations or fractures to the elbow or wrist are known to cause ulnar nerve entrapment. The nerve is at risk of getting trapped between two pieces of fractured bone. A dislocation could move the nerve into an unnatural position resulting in compression.
Abnormal growths such as tumors and cysts can put pressure on the ulnar nerve leading to compression. The growth may be growing near to the nerve or directly attached. Tumors and cysts continue to grow and if they are not surgically removed the level of compression increases.
Clinical studies have shown that patients with diabetes are prone to ulnar nerve entrapment. High blood sugar levels in the body can damage nerves making them susceptible to compression. High blood sugar damages blood vessels which deprives nerves of essential nutrients and oxygen.
Drugs such as insulin used to control diabetes are known to cause nerve damage in some sufferers.
Guyon’s Tunnel Syndrome
Fluid often builds up during pregnancy due to hormonal changes and this may lead to a condition called Guyon's tunnel syndrome. The ulnar nerve passes through Guyon’s tunnel as it enters the hand. A buildup of fluid in this area puts pressure on the ulnar nerve causing entrapment.
The fluid that builds up during pregnancy usually drains away soon after giving birth. The pressure on the ulnar nerve is then reduced and symptoms should ease.
How Is Ulnar Nerve Entrapment Diagnosed?
To diagnose ulnar nerve entrapment a physician will begin by asking the patient about their symptoms. A physical examination will be carried out where elbow movement, grip and finger mobility is checked. If a diagnosis cannot be made at this stage there are a series of tests to be carried out.
Imaging tests are used to check for nerve damage and its causes. CT and MRI scans produce high resolution images which allow physicians to look at nerve damage in detail.
Bone spurs and fractures will be picked up by X-ray machines and ultrasound is used to look for internal damage.
Nerve conduction studies (NCS) are used by physicians to diagnose nerve damage. The test uses electrode patches to measure how fast impulses travel through the nerve. The reading picked up by the equipment helps the physician to diagnose ulnar nerve entrapment.
An electromyogram test (EMG) is another way to look for nerve damage and the procedure measures electrical activity in muscles. This test is often used when patients have reported numbness as a symptom. The test is a good indication of whether the ulnar nerve is compressed and not functioning.
Diagnostic nerve blocks are also used to determine whether there is any damage to a nerve. The ulnar nerve is injected with an anesthetic and the patient's symptoms are carefully monitored. If symptoms improve and pain decreases it indicates that there is a problem with the nerve.
What Are the Treatments for Ulnar Nerve Entrapment?
When ulnar nerve entrapment has been diagnosed there are a number of treatment options. The first course of action is to prescribe anti-inflammatory medication to reduce swelling that may be compressing the ulnar nerve. Steroids are used alongside anti-inflammatory medicine in some cases.
Wearing a brace or elbow splint whilst sleeping is an effective way to treat ulnar nerve damage. There is published medical evidence that wearing a splint at night eases the symptoms associated with ulnar nerve injuries. Stabilizing the elbow during sleep is a non-invasive way to prevent ulnar nerve entrapment.
Physiotherapy is used to treat ulnar nerve entrapment and nerve gliding exercises can help. The simple exercise helps the nerve to move more freely between tissue and bone. These exercises should only be done if a physician or qualified physiotherapist has recommended them.
When non-invasive treatments do not ease the symptoms of ulnar nerve entrapment then surgery may help. Cubital tunnel release surgery is carried out to free the ulnar nerve that’s compressed.
A surgeon will open up the cubital tunnel which is in the elbow area so that the ulnar nerve is exposed. The surgeon is then able to move the ulnar nerve from its current position and relocate it. This type of surgery should ease the symptoms and help to prevent ulnar nerve entrapment in the future.
After looking at the information it’s clear to see that ulnar nerve entrapment is going to cause problems. Early diagnosis is important so that the symptoms can be managed and treatment started. Following treatment the symptoms will ease and no permanent damage is done to the ulnar nerve.