The ulnar nerve is one of the three main nerves in your arm. It starts in the upper arm, runs down through the elbow and terminates in the hand. It gives feeling to the pinky and half of the ring finger, and it controls most of the small muscles in the hand to allow for fine motor tasks. The tingling sensation you get from striking your “funny bone” in the elbow is from ulnar nerve stimulation.
Ulnar nerve compression—also called ulnar nerve entrapment—is damage to, irritation of, or compression of the ulnar nerve. Compression can happen anywhere on the nerve, but the elbow is the most common place for ulnar nerve compression. That’s because the space through which the nerve travels is narrow, so it has a greater chance of being compressed or irritated. When the ulnar nerve is compressed at the elbow, it’s known as cubital tunnel syndrome.
Symptoms of ulnar nerve compression can affect the pinky, the ring finger, the hand or the arm. They may include:
These symptoms can come and go, and will often happen more when the elbow is bent, such as when typing at a computer or holding a phone to the ear.
In extreme or long-term cases, ulnar nerve compression can cause an irreversible wasting of the hand muscles. That’s why it’s important to see a doctor if symptoms are severe or have been going on for longer than six weeks.
Ulnar nerve decompression—also known as cubital tunnel release if done at the elbow—is a surgery aimed at releasing the pressure on the nerve, usually at the elbow (where it may also be known as cubital tunnel release). Surgeons will make a three- to four-inch incision along the elbow. Then they will attempt to clear out whatever tissue—often one of the ligaments in the cubital tunnel in the elbow that the ulnar nerve passes through—is compressing the nerve.
In rare cases, the nerve has to be repositioned or the funny bone—the medial epicondyle—must be removed, but usually, cubital tunnel release is enough.
The ultimate goal of ulnar nerve decompression surgery is to remove whatever is pressing on the nerve to alleviate the pain, weakness, numbness or tingling caused by the compression. This is typically accomplished by cutting one of the ligaments that compose the cubital tunnel so the tunnel is bigger and nothing is pressing on the nerve. Once the ligament is cut, it will eventually heal in such a way as to allow more room for the nerve.
The procedure is performed either in the hospital or an outpatient surgery center and patients will go home the same day. The procedure takes about 30 minutes.
It’s recommended that the arm is elevated for 24 to 48 hours to reduce swelling.
The sutures the surgeons use to close the incision will come out within two weeks. About 95 percent of patients have no complications, but the most common risks are bleeding and infection.
For more information about ulnar nerve decompression surgery or to schedule an appointment with a specialist, contact us today.