Pain in Your Funny Bone? It Could Be Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Here's how to tell if tingling and weakness in your fingers and hand needs to be treated.
There's nothing funny about having pain in your funny bone—although the funny bone isn't even a bone at all. It's a nerve that runs down the inside of your elbow called the ulnar nerve. This nerve controls movement and sensations in your forearm and hand, especially in your pinky and ring finger.
When the inside of your elbow is hit at just the right place, it may trigger a funny feeling in this nerve (that's probably how it got its nickname). The feeling is more like a tingling or electric sensation than a sharp pain, but you definitely notice it. If caused by a sudden impact, the sensation usually goes away pretty quickly. But if these feelings linger or come and go, you may have a condition known as cubital tunnel syndrome.
What is cubital tunnel syndrome?
Your ulnar nerve runs from your neck down to your hand, through a little area at the inside of your elbow called the cubital tunnel. If this nerve gets compressed, irritated or inflamed, it can cause pain, tingling, numbness or weakness. Compression usually occurs where the nerve runs through the cubital tunnel, since the space is narrow. But the nerve may also be affected above or below this area.
What happens if you have cubital tunnel syndrome?
The ulnar nerve affects the sensations you feel in your pinky finger and part of your ring finger. It also controls the muscles in your forearm that help you grip objects and muscles in your hand that help you perform fine movements, such as playing a musical instrument or typing. When the nerve is compressed, it can cause the following symptoms:
- Tingling, numbness or a feeling that your hand and fingers are falling asleep
- Difficulty moving your fingers when they're tingling or numb
- Pain on the inside of your elbow
- Symptoms come and go and are more likely to occur when your elbow is bent
One word of caution if tingling or numbness in your hand or fingers comes on suddenly: If you also experience significant weakness in your arm or if you also have symptoms in your leg (on the same side of your body), speech difficulties, vision problems or a severe headache, seek immediate medical attention to make sure a stroke is not the cause of your symptoms.
What increases the risk of developing cubital tunnel syndrome?
Although there's no way to know for sure who will or will not develop this condition, these factors increase your risk:
- Bending the elbow or leaning on it for long periods of time
- Previous elbow fracture or dislocation
- Cysts or bone spurs near the elbow joint
- Arthritis of the elbow
How is cubital tunnel syndrome treated?
This condition is usually treated with bracing or splinting, nerve gliding exercises and hand therapy (so you learn how to avoid putting pressure on the ulnar nerve). Pain and inflammation can be relieved with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). If these treatments don't ease symptoms, surgery may be recommended, although it is usually a last resort option. If you don't treat the condition, it may result in muscle atrophy and weakness over time.
Is cubital tunnel syndrome the same as carpal tunnel syndrome?
Although both conditions are due to compressed nerves that run down your arm into your hand, they affect different nerves and different parts of your hand. Cubital tunnel syndrome affects the ulnar nerve, with compression mostly occurring at the elbow. It primarily affects the pinky and ring fingers. Carpal tunnel syndrome affects the median nerve. This nerve is more likely to be compressed at the wrist. This causes pain, numbness and weakness in the wrist, palm, thumb, index finger and middle finger.
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Date Last Reviewed: February 16, 2023
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD