Numb’s the word – It’s not always carpal tunnel syndrome

Most people assume numbness or tingling in their fingers means they have carpal tunnel syndrome — but that is not always the case. If your symptoms include a loss of sensation in half of your ring finger and all of little finger, you most likely have cubital tunnel syndrome.

According to Ryan Calfee, MD, orthopedic specialist with Washington University, “Ulnar nerve compression at the elbow is called cubital tunnel syndrome – with symptoms including numbness and tingling in the ring and small fingers. Individuals may also note atrophy of the hand muscles and experience difficulty in trying to bring the small finger together against the other digits.”

The ulnar nerve provides the sensation to half of the ring finger and the small finger in addition to controlling many of the small muscles within the hand. This nerve courses around the back of the elbow where, when struck, it is responsible for the common complaint “I hit my funny bone”
In contrast, patients with carpal tunnel syndrome may notice that the thumb, index and middle fingers feel “asleep”; they may drop small items and awaken at night, with the need to shake out the hand to regain feeling. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common upper extremity nerve compression syndrome and is produced when the median nerve is compressed at the wrist.

Once cubital tunnel syndrome is diagnosed, treatment is dictated by the severity of compression. Dr Calfee explains, “Mild nerve irritation can be effectively managed with activity modification and bracing that is designed to avoid full bending of the elbow. As the nerve becomes more involved, surgery can be performed to release the tissues that are compressing the nerve. Surgery can also be performed to move the nerve to a more protected location in the front of the elbow.”

If you suspect you have cubital tunnel syndrome and are seeking relief, please call to make an appointment with one of our Washington University orthopedic specialists. Patients are seen at:

The Center for Advanced Medicine
4921 Parkview Place
St. Louis, 63110
314 747-2500

Washington University Orthopedics
14532 S. Outer Forty Drive
Chesterfield, 63017
314 514-3500.