Elbow Pain While Typing? Say Hello to Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Most people have heard of carpal tunnel syndrome, but do you know about it’s lesser-known cousin, cubital tunnel syndrome? Find out how to prevent and treat the common condition.
If you spend your days hunched over a computer banging on a keyboard, you’re probably already well aware of the potential to suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome — an orthopedic condition that causes pain in the wrist and hand. But did you know there might be another common disorder you’re at risk of? With more people spending their days trapped behind computer screens than ever before, another similar, less-known disorder is starting to take the spotlight: Cubital tunnel syndrome.
Just like carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome is a nerve compression disorder, meaning it occurs when a nerve in your body is squeezed or compacted. In the case of cubital tunnel syndrome, that nerve is the ulnar nerve, which runs through the cubital tunnel — a pathway of muscle, ligament, and bone along the inside of the elbow that stretches from your neck to your fingers.
Even if you haven’t heard of the ulnar nerve, you’ve certainly felt it before. Have you ever hit your elbow and felt a sensation that you laughingly called your “funny bone”? In fact, that sensation wasn’t caused by hitting a bone at all. Instead, it was an inflammation of the ulnar nerve, which can cause severe elbow pain (something anyone who has experienced cubital tunnel syndrome is all too familiar with).
What Causes Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
There are a number of different possible causes for cubital tunnel syndrome, but nowadays it’s most often attributed to our reliance on technology, including computers and cell phones. Prolonged bending of the elbow — such as when you type on your phone or keyboard or when you bend your elbow to speak into your phone — can eventually inflame the ulnar nerve. Cubital tunnel syndrome can also occur if you get a general elbow injury, suffer from arthritis, or sleep with your elbow at a pronounced angle.
No matter the cause, as the ulnar nerve compresses over time, that compression can lead to irritation and inflammation. You may experience numbness and tingling in the hand in general or specifically the ring or little finger. Hand pain and an aching sensation in the elbow are other common symptoms of the condition. In advanced cases, you may also experience muscle weakness in the arm and hand.
Preventing Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
The best treatment for any orthopedic condition is always prevention. A great place to start is by checking the ergonomic setup of your desk. If your chair is low compared to the desk height, your elbows may be bent at a sharp 90-degree angle (or even less). Arrange your desk and chair so you bend your elbows at more than 90 degrees. The higher your chair is, the easier this will be. It’s also a good idea to move your keyboard closer to you so your elbows don’t rest on the desk as you type. If you spend a lot of time talking on the phone for your job, try a headset instead of a handheld device to avoid bending your help for long periods of time — something that should be avoided under any circumstances.
In a similar vein, you should particularly avoid resting your elbow on hard surfaces whenever possible. Even if you’re just resting on an armrest, try placing a pad under your elbow to reduce the possibility of inflammation.
If you do experience pain in your elbow, try to identify when the pain occurs and avoid that activity as much as possible. Stop what you’re doing and give yourself some time to rest to let the pain subside. In general, keep your arms straight as much as possible, and stretch your upper body, wrists, and fingers daily to prevent nerve compression and to keep your muscles limber.
Treating Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital tunnel syndrome treatment begins with diagnosis. To diagnose the condition, your orthopedist will usually conduct a series of tests. These may include a nerve conduction test to determine if there is any nerve compression or an electromyogram (EMG) that measures muscle strength in the forearm. In some cases, they may also take an X-ray to see if there are any bone spurs in the elbow or if arthritis is present.
Once the condition is diagnosed, your orthopedist can begin looking into treatment options. Surgery is rarely recommended as a treatment for cubital tunnel syndrome. It is only ever used in severe cases where a person’s arm weakens to the point where they can no longer grip things. Instead, orthopedists typically stick to non-surgical treatment methods that can reduce your pain over several weeks of treatment and allow you to return to your normal activities. These therapies range from a regimen of nonsteroidal anti inflammatories (ibuprofen or naproxen) to a splint or foam brace to limit elbow movement at night.
Physical therapy is another common method of treatment when it comes to cubital tunnel syndrome. While your physical therapist will work with you to determine what exercises best suit your condition, one common approach is using nerve gliding exercises that promote normal nerve movement in concert with the joint.
Time to Visit Your Orthopedist
Without treatment, cubital tunnel syndrome will worsen. Persistent pain in your elbow (or wrist) should be examined by an orthopedic specialist to alleviate your discomfort.