Learn About Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction

What is the definition of Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?

Ulnar nerve dysfunction is a problem with the nerve that travels from the shoulder to the hand, called the ulnar nerve. It helps you move your arm, wrist, and hand.

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What are the alternative names for Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?

Neuropathy - ulnar nerve; Ulnar nerve palsy; Mononeuropathy; Cubital tunnel syndrome

What are the causes of Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?

Damage to one nerve group, such as the ulnar nerve, is called mononeuropathy. Mononeuropathy means there is damage to a single nerve. Diseases affecting the entire body (systemic disorders) can also cause isolated nerve damage.

Causes of mononeuropathy include:

  • An illness in the whole body that damages a single nerve
  • Direct injury to the nerve
  • Long-term pressure on the nerve
  • Pressure on the nerve caused by swelling or injury of nearby body structures

Ulnar neuropathy is also common in those with diabetes.

Ulnar neuropathy occurs when there is damage to the ulnar nerve. This nerve travels down the arm to the wrist, hand, and ring and little fingers. It passes near the surface of the elbow. So, bumping the nerve there causes the pain and tingling of "hitting the funny bone."

When the nerve compressed in the elbow, a problem called cubital tunnel syndrome may result.

When damage destroys the nerve covering (myelin sheath) or part of the nerve itself, nerve signaling is slowed or prevented.

Damage to the ulnar nerve can be caused by:

  • Long-term pressure on the elbow or base of the palm
  • An elbow fracture or dislocation
  • Repeated elbow bending, such as with cigarette smoking

In some cases, no cause can be found.

What are the symptoms of Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?

Symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Abnormal sensations in the little finger and part of the ring finger, usually on the palm side
  • Weakness, loss of coordination of the fingers
  • Clawlike deformity of the hand and wrist
  • Pain, numbness, decreased sensation, tingling, or burning sensation in the areas controlled by the nerve

Pain or numbness may awaken you from sleep. Activities such as tennis or golf may make the condition worse.

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What are the current treatments for Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?

The goal of treatment is to allow you to use the hand and arm as much as possible. Your provider will find and treat the cause, if possible. Sometimes, no treatment is needed and you will get better on your own.

If medicines are needed, they may include:

  • Over-the-counter or prescription medicines (such as gabapentin and pregabalin)
  • Corticosteroid injections around the nerve to reduce swelling and pressure

Your provider will likely suggest self-care measures. These may include:

  • A supportive splint at either the wrist or elbow to help prevent further injury and relieve the symptoms. You may need to wear it all day and night, or only at night.
  • An elbow pad if the ulnar nerve is injured at the elbow. Also, avoid bumping or leaning on the elbow.
  • Physical therapy exercises to help maintain muscle strength in the arm.

Occupational therapy or counseling to suggest changes in the workplace may be needed.

Surgery to relieve pressure on the nerve may help if the symptoms get worse, or if there is proof that part of the nerve is wasting away.

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What is the outlook (prognosis) for Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?

If the cause of the nerve dysfunction can be found and successfully treated, there is a good chance of a full recovery. In some cases, there may be partial or complete loss of movement or sensation.

What are the possible complications of Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?

Complications may include:

  • Deformity of the hand
  • Partial or complete loss of sensation in the hand or fingers
  • Partial or complete loss of wrist or hand movement
  • Recurrent or unnoticed injury to the hand
When should I contact a medical professional for Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?

Call your provider if you have an arm injury and develop numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness down your forearm and the ring and little fingers.

How do I prevent Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?

Avoid prolonged pressure on the elbow or palm. Avoid prolonged or repeated elbow bending. Casts, splints, and other appliances should always be examined for proper fit.

Ulnar nerve damage
What are the latest Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction Clinical Trials?
Correlation Between the Presence of the Arcade of Struthers on Preoperative Ultrasound and During Endoscopic Surgery
Summary: To determine the correlation between the presence of the arcade of Struthers on preoperative ultrasound and during endoscopic surgery for cubital tunnel syndrome, and to determine the reliability of a portable ultrasound probe to detect the arcade of Struthers in the arm.
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Effectiveness of Nerve Glide Exercises on Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Summary: The objective of this study is to determine if nerve glide exercises in patients with cubital tunnel syndrome can improve pain, paraesthesias and reduce the need for future surgery. Cubital tunnel syndrome is a common form of peripheral neuropathy caused by compression of the ulnar nerve at the elbow. Surgical intervention is typically reserved for those with severe symptoms, but many cases can be...
What are the Latest Advances for Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction?
Is Compressive Intramedullary Nailing an Effective Method in Aseptic Humerus Nonunions without Bone Defects?
Summary: Is Compressive Intramedullary Nailing an Effective Method in Aseptic Humerus Nonunions without Bone Defects?
Treatment outcome of tardy ulnar nerve palsy associated with traumatic cubitus valgus by supracondylar shortening wedge rotary osteotomy and ulnar nerve in situ tension release.
Summary: Treatment outcome of tardy ulnar nerve palsy associated with traumatic cubitus valgus by supracondylar shortening wedge rotary osteotomy and ulnar nerve in situ tension release.
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Functional reconstructions using only ulnar nerve and ulnar nerve-innervated muscles for traumatic musculocutaneous, median and radial nerve palsies.
Summary: Functional reconstructions using only ulnar nerve and ulnar nerve-innervated muscles for traumatic musculocutaneous, median and radial nerve palsies.
Who are the sources who wrote this article ?

Published Date: June 23, 2020
Published By: Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, SUNY Stony Brook, School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

What are the references for this article ?

Craig A. Neuropathies. In: Cifu DX, ed. Braddom's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 41.

Jobe MT, Martinez SF. Peripheral nerve injuries. In: Azar FM, Beaty JH, Canale ST, eds. Campbell's Operative Orthopaedics. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 62.

Mackinnon SE, Novak CB. Compression neuropathies. In: Wolfe SW, Hotchkiss RN, Pederson WC, Kozin SH, Cohen MS, eds. Green's Operative Hand Surgery. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 28.