What Is Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome?

If you notice pain, tingling, or numbness in your hand, you could have ulnar tunnel syndrome. 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.

What Causes It?

The most common cause is a noncancerous growth called a ganglion cyst. But you can get it if you twist the joint a lot or do any type of motion with it over and over. It can also result from working with your hand bent down and out. Bicyclists and weight lifters sometimes get it due to constant grip pressure.

Other causes include wrist injuries and arthritis. 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.

What Are the Symptoms?

It can cause pain, numbness, and loss of function. In the early stages, you may notice numbness or tingling on the side of your hand by your pinky and ring fingers. It may feel like they’re falling asleep. Your hand might also be numb when you wake up.

You may not have pain at first. But it might be hard to open jars, hold things, or do complex tasks with your hand like typing. As it gets worse, your wrist could begin to hurt.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your medical history and symptoms.

She’ll also check your hand and look for areas that tingle. She may look for dryness or spots where the muscle is weak (you may hear her call it atrophy). While most symptoms will be in your hand, you may have some pain in your elbow. She’ll check that joint to make sure the nerve isn’t trapped there instead. The symptoms are the same.

If you’ve had an injury to your wrist or other trauma, your doctor will do a scan or X-ray of the joint. There could be a bone fragment pressing against the nerve. This is a less common cause of ulnar tunnel syndrome, but she’ll want to rule it out.

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How Is It Treated?

It depends on what’s causing the problem. If wrist position is to blame, you’ll need to move your hands often and use padding if it helps.

Take over-the-counter medications like aspirin or ibuprofen for pain.

The doctor will probably give you a brace, splint, or other device to help keep your wrist straight. She might suggest occupational therapy to build strength in the ligaments and tendons in your hands and elbow.

If you’ve had an injury, or if your condition results from one, the doctor may suggest surgery to take pressure off the nerve. After the operation, you’ll probably have occupational or physical therapy to help you get back to normal.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on June 27, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Society for Surgery of the Hand: “Brachial Plexus Injury.”

American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: “Ulnar Nerve Entrapment at the Elbow (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome),” “Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome of the Wrist.”

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Fact Sheet.”

The Hand and Wrist Institute: “Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Ulnar Nerve Entrapment.”

Basil Besh, MD, orthopedic surgeon, Freemont, CA.

New York University Langone Medical Center: “Preventing Ulnar Nerve Compression.”

American Society of Hand Therapists: “Cubital Tunnel Syndrome.”

Houston Methodist: “Guyon’s Canal Syndrome.”

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