Nerves are really rather amazing. They cause fingers to pull back instantly from the heat of a candle flame or the quick slice of a sharp knife. When something goes wrong, however, and the nerves become damaged, they can make our lives miserable. The numbness, burning and aching pain of ulnar nerve damage is no exception, but there is treatment that can bring recovery.
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The Ulnar Nerve
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) describes the ulnar nerve as one of three main nerves in the arm. It starts at the spinal cord/neck, runs beneath the collarbone and along the inner upper arm. At the inner elbow, the ulnar nerve passes through a space called the cubital tunnel. When you hit your "funny bone," you are hitting the ulnar nerve. The nerve then journeys under muscle to the wrist, enters another tunnel (Guyon's canal) and ends up on the outer palm/little finger side of the hand.
According to MayoClinic.com, nerve entrapment (also called a pinched nerve) occurs when surrounding tissue presses on or squeezes the nerve. This then causes the nerve to become inflamed or damaged and interrupts its function. In the case of the ulnar nerve, impingement can occur at the wrist, under the collarbone or at the spinal cord. However, AAOS notes entrapment of the ulnar nerve most often happens at the elbow.
Causes of Ulnar Nerve Entrapment
Repetitive activities that keep the elbow bent, such as typing or holding a tennis racket, are likely causes, according to AAOS. Leaning on the elbows for prolonged periods or keeping your arms curled up at night may also be culprits. MayoClinic.com notes that obesity, osteoarthritis and heredity can contribute to a person being more prone to nerve damage. An injury that involves a blow to the elbow can cause swelling that pinches the nerve.
AAOS reports the ulnar nerve is responsible for sensations in the little finger and half of the ring finger closest to the little finger. It controls most small muscles in the hand and some larger forearm muscles. Entrapment of the nerve can cause numbness or a pins-and-needles sensation in the ring and little fingers. It can also cause pain along the inside of the elbow. It may result in a weak grip, making it difficult to hold onto items, or may interfere with the fine motor activity required for playing a guitar.
See your physician for symptoms lasting longer then a few weeks. Ulnar nerve entrapment may cause muscle wasting. AAOS reports this is irreversible. According to MayoClinic.com, the obvious way to recover is to stop whatever activity caused the issue. Physicians may also prescribe Motrin, Advil or another anti-inflammatory. For debilitating symptoms, surgery followed by physiotherapy may be necessary. One surgical option is anterior transposition, during which the surgeon moves the nerve from behind the elbow to in front of the elbow. Your doctor will choose which option is best for you. AAOS reports results of surgery are generally good, but advise it can take some time for nerves to recover.
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