DEAR DOCTOR K: I have cubital tunnel syndrome. What’s the best treatment for it?
DEAR READER: Cubital tunnel syndrome is a trapped or pinched nerve problem, much like its better-known relative, carpal tunnel syndrome.
Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve gets compressed. The ulnar nerve extends from the spinal cord in your neck to your forearm and the pinky side of your hand. The nerve passes through a series of passageways, or tunnels. The tunnels are composed of tough layers of fibers that can pinch the nerve running through them.
The tunnel located behind the “funny bone” of your elbow is called the cubital tunnel. If you’ve ever hit your funny bone against something hard, you know that it’s not funny – it just hurts. Most nerves are buried deep inside the body, but in the cubital tunnel, the ulnar nerve is very close to the surface and easily injured.
When you bend your elbow more than 90 degrees, it stretches the ulnar nerve, pushing it against a bony canal. Tasks that require you to extend and flex your elbow repeatedly can irritate and inflame the nerve. Leaning or resting on the elbow for long periods can also put pressure on the nerve. Your sleep position may aggravate the problem if you sleep with your elbows bent. Injuries can also damage this nerve.
The first symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome typically are numbness or tingling in the ring finger and little finger. Touching your elbow may cause a sudden, sharp pain. Your hands may also become weak and clumsy, and you may have trouble straightening your fingers.
The most important thing is to identify the actions that may have triggered the problem. For instance, switching to a headset-style phone and removing armrests from your office chair may help. Avoid leaning on your elbow, keeping your elbow flexed more than 90 degrees, and repeatedly bending and straightening your elbow.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen can help reduce pain and swelling. So can wearing a splint to keep your elbow straight while you sleep.
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