Can Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Cause Shoulder and Neck Pain?

This article will discuss the causes, symptoms, and diagnosis of cubital tunnel syndrome, as well as its correlation to shoulder and neck pain. We’ll also discuss various treatment options, including non-surgical interventions like nerve gliding exercises and splinting, as well as surgical procedures such as ulnar nerve decompression and ulnar nerve transposition. 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome, it’s essential to seek medical attention promptly. At Georgia Hand, Shoulder & Elbow, our team of orthopedic specialists is here to help. Schedule an appointment today at our locations in Marietta and Atlanta, Georgia, and let us assist you in finding relief from your symptoms.

A man with cubital tunnel syndrome experiencing shoulder and neck pain.

What is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?

Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve, which runs from your neck to your hand, becomes compressed or irritated. This compression (also known as ulnar nerve entrapment) happens at the elbow, causing pain, numbness, or tingling in the ring finger and small finger.

Imagine the ulnar nerve as a wire connecting your hand to your neck. When this “wire” gets pinched at the elbow, it can cause discomfort.

What Causes Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?

Ulnar nerve entrapment occurs when the nerve travels through a narrow tunnel of tissue on the inside of your elbow, known as the cubital tunnel.

Several factors can lead to this ulnar nerve compression, including keeping your elbow bent for long periods, leaning on your elbow frequently, or repetitive motions that strain the nerve. Sometimes, injury, bone spurs, or swelling around the medial epicondyle (a bony bump on the inside of the elbow) can contribute to ulnar nerve entrapment.

Can Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Cause Neck and Shoulder Pain?

Cubital tunnel syndrome primarily affects the hand and arm, causing symptoms like pain, tingling, and numbness in the ring finger and small finger. However, it typically doesn’t cause shoulder and neck pain directly.

Shoulder and neck pain are more commonly associated with conditions like muscle strain, poor posture, or problems with the cervical spine (neck area). While cubital tunnel syndrome doesn’t directly cause shoulder and neck pain, it can indirectly contribute to it.

When the ulnar nerve is compressed at the elbow, it can lead to changes in the way you move your arm. You might compensate for the discomfort by altering your posture or the way you use your shoulder and neck muscles. Over time, this compensation can result in shoulder and neck pain.

If you’re experiencing shoulder and neck pain along with symptoms in your hand and fingers, it’s essential to consult a doctor to determine the underlying cause and get appropriate treatment.

How is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Diagnosed?

Diagnosing cubital tunnel syndrome usually involves a combination of medical history, physical examination, and, sometimes, special tests.

  • Medical History and Physical Examination: Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, including when they started and what makes them better or worse. They will also examine your arm, elbow, and hand to check for signs of nerve compression, such as tenderness, weakness, or changes in sensation.
  • Tinel’s Test: During this test, your doctor will lightly tap over the ulnar nerve at the elbow. If you feel tingling or electric shock-like sensations in your ring finger and small finger, it may indicate cubital tunnel syndrome.
  • Nerve Conduction Studies (NCS): These tests measure how well your nerves are working. During a nerve conduction test, small electrodes are placed on your skin to deliver small electric shocks to the ulnar nerve. By measuring how quickly the nerve sends electrical signals, your doctor can determine if there is any damage or compression.
  • Electromyography (EMG): This test is often done along with NCS. It involves inserting thin needles into the muscles to measure their electrical activity. EMG can help determine if there is any muscle damage or weakness caused by nerve compression.
 

These tests help confirm the diagnosis of cubital tunnel syndrome and determine the severity of the nerve damage. Based on the results, your doctor can recommend the most appropriate treatment, which may include rest, splinting, physical therapy, or, in severe cases, surgery to relieve the pressure on the ulnar nerve. If you’re experiencing symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome, it’s essential to see a doctor for proper evaluation and treatment.

How is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Treated?

Cubital tunnel syndrome can often be treated successfully, especially if caught early. Cubital tunnel treatment options vary depending on the severity of the condition and may include:

  1. Avoiding activities that aggravate the nerve: Certain activities, like leaning on your elbow or keeping your elbow bent for long periods, can worsen symptoms. Avoiding these activities can help relieve pressure on the ulnar nerve.
  2. Using a brace or splint: Wearing a brace to keep your elbow straight can help prevent further irritation of the ulnar nerve, especially at night when you might unknowingly bend your elbow during sleep.
  3. Nerve gliding exercises: These exercises can help the ulnar nerve move more smoothly within the cubital tunnel, reducing irritation and compression. Your doctor or physical therapist can teach you how to perform these exercises safely.
  4. Medication: Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce pain and inflammation associated with cubital tunnel syndrome.
  5. Physical therapy: A physical therapist can teach you exercises to strengthen the muscles around the elbow and improve flexibility, reducing pressure on the ulnar nerve.
  6. Ulnar nerve decompression surgery: In severe cases or when conservative treatments don’t provide relief, surgery may be necessary. There are different surgical techniques, including cubital tunnel release and ulnar nerve anterior transposition. During these procedures, the surgeon releases the tissue compressing the ulnar nerve or repositions the nerve to relieve pressure.

Seeking Help for Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

If you’re experiencing symptoms like pain, tingling, or numbness in your hand and fingers, especially along with shoulder and neck pain, it’s crucial to seek medical attention. Cubital tunnel syndrome can significantly impact your daily life, but with proper treatment, relief is possible. 

At Georgia Hand, Shoulder & Elbow, our team of orthopedic specialists offers advanced treatments for cubital tunnel syndrome, including ulnar nerve decompression and ulnar nerve transposition surgeries. Don’t let cubital tunnel syndrome hold you back. Schedule an appointment today at our locations in Marietta and Atlanta, GA, and let us help you get back to living life to the fullest.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Randall Alexander

 

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