What is the ulnar nerve?
The ulnar nerve is one of the five major nerves that runs down the arm. It is also known as the funny bone because the nerve is located just under the skin on the inside of the elbow. If you hit the nerve, it can cause a lot of pain that runs down to the hand.
What does the ulnar nerve do?
The ulnar nerve gives sensation along the side of the forearm to the small finger. It also controls many of the muscles in the hand. If the ulnar nerve is not working, the small and ring fingers will be numb and you will not be able to cross your fingers.
What are the symptoms of ulnar neuropathy at the elbow?
The first symptoms patients experience is numbness in the small and ring fingers when the elbow is bent. This usually occurs when talking on the phone for a long time or in the middle of the night after sleeping with the elbow bent. Moving the elbow straight will often make the fingers feel normal. The worse the condition becomes, the longer it can take to make the tingling go away. In severe cases, the numbness is always there and the hand or inside of the elbow can be painful. The muscles of the hand can shrink as well, especially the ones between the thumb and index finger.
How is the diagnosis made?
Your doctor will listen to your symptoms and then examine the elbow, the nerve and the hand. If the exam matches your syptoms, then your doctor will make the diagnosis of ulnar neuropathy. Sometimes a nerve test is needed to confirm the diagnosis. The nerve test will measure the signal as it travels along the nerve. If the signal gets lower at the elbow, then the diagnosis is confirmed.
What is the treatment for ulnar neuropathy at the elbow?
For mild cases, the best treatment is to avoid bending the elbow for long periods of time, especially during the night. A brace or towel can be wrapped around the elbow so that it cannot bend too much during the night. Patients can also avoid bending the elbow for too long during the day.
For more severe cases, the ulnar nerve needs freed from the tight tissue that is constricting the nerve at the elbow. Sometimes the nerve needs to be moved from behind the elbow to the front of the elbow to keep it from being stretched when the elbow is bent. This requires surgery, which takes an hour to perform.
What is the recovery from surgery for ulnar neuropathy at the elbow?
Patients are able to use the hand a few days after surgery. After two weeks, patients can use the elbow and the rest of the arm normally. The nerve will recover over the next several weeks. The more severe the nerve was injured, the longer it takes for the nerve to recover.