What Is Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome?
Ulnar tunnel syndrome is pain, tingling, or numbness in your hand, caused by a pinched nerve in your wrist. It isn’t pleasant, but treatments and simple changes to your routine can help you feel better quickly.
The ulnar nerve starts near where your neck meets your shoulder. It runs through your elbow and down to the outer edge of your hand. It’s one of three main nerves that provide feeling and function to your hand.
Ulnar tunnel syndrome is carpal tunnel’s lesser-known cousin. Like the median nerve passes through the carpal tunnel in your hand, the ulnar nerve passes through Guyon’s canal at your wrist. You might even hear your doctor call it Guyon’s canal syndrome.
Ulnar Tunnel Symptoms
When something presses on your ulnar nerve, you’ll feel the effects on the side of your hand by your pinky and ring fingers. Typical symptoms include:
Tingling, like your fingers are falling asleep
Numbness in your hand when you wake up
Weakness in your grip
Trouble with complex tasks like typing
Pain in your wrist as the condition gets worse
Ulnar Tunnel Causes and Risk Factors
The most common cause of ulnar tunnel syndrome is a ganglion cyst. That’s a noncancerous growth filled with fluid that develops on your wrist and can press on your ulnar nerve.
But you can get it if you twist the joint a lot or do any type of motion with it over and over.
A broken hamate bone in your wrist can also bring it on. If you’re a baseball player, you might break this bone while batting. If golf is your game, you could break it if you miss the ball and slam the club into the ground.
You’re more likely to get ulnar tunnel syndrome if you:
Work with your hand bent down and out
Use machinery that causes trauma to the wrist, like a jackhammer
Participate in an activity where you’re constantly applying grip pressure, like bicycling or weight lifting
Injure your wrist
Ulnar Tunnel Diagnosis
Your doctor will ask questions about your medical history and symptoms.
They’ll also check your hand and look for areas that tingle. They may look for dryness or spots where the muscle is weak (you may hear them call it atrophy). While most symptoms will be in your hand, you may have some pain in your elbow. Your doctor will check that joint to make sure the nerve isn’t trapped there instead. The symptoms are the same.
You may get certain imaging tests, including:
X-ray to look for a fracture or a bone fragment pressing on the nerve
CT scan to look for a growth
Nerve conduction study to see if the nerve is working correctly
Ulnar Tunnel Treatment
Treatment depends on what’s causing the problem. You’ll probably need surgery if you have a cyst or an injury that’s putting pressure on the ulnar nerve. After the operation, you may have occupational or physical therapy to help you get back to normal.
If wrist position is to blame, your doctor may give you a brace, splint, or other device to help keep your wrist straight. You might also need occupational therapy to build strength in the ligaments and tendons in your hands and elbow.
There are several things you can try at home, with your doctor's guidance, that may help relieve your symptoms:
Change the way you hold your wrists when you type or grip your handlebars
Add padding when you put pressure on your wrists
Avoid activities that make your symptoms worse
Wear a splint
Take over-the-counter medications like aspirin or ibuprofen for pain.
Ulnar Tunnel Complications
If you have mild ulnar tunnel syndrome, your symptoms may improve or progress slowly. But if yours is more serious, it can get worse. You may develop pain in your hand and wrist. Your hand muscles can waste away to the point that you can’t do normal things like open a jar, and your fingers may form a “claw” shape.