Ulnar tunnel syndrome is a condition that affects the wrist. It happens when the ulnar nerve is compressed going from the wrist into the hand through a space referred to as Guyon’s canal. You may have weakness, tingling, numbness, or pain because of the nerve compression.
The ulnar nerve is a large nerve that runs from your neck to your hand. It’s responsible for some hand movements and function. Bones and muscles don’t protect the ulnar nerve, though, so injuries are common. When you “hit your funny bone” — or experience a feeling of shock after hitting your elbow — that pain comes from the ulnar nerve.
The symptoms of ulnar tunnel syndrome can take time to develop. They can also get progressively worse over time.
Common symptoms of ulnar tunnel syndrome affecting the hand, wrist, and little finger include:
- numbness, especially in the little and ring fingers
- tingling, especially in the little and ring finger
- inability to do daily tasks such as typing
- problems holding things with the affected hand
- hand and fingers forming a “claw”
A ganglion, which is a lump filled with fluid, can form on the joint of the wrist and cause ulnar tunnel syndrome. Ganglions are a type of benign (noncancerous) cyst.
Ulnar tunnel syndrome can also be caused by repetitive trauma or pressure to the hand. Participating in certain exercise activities, such as cycling and weightlifting, can create this type of pressure. Some jobs that require using tools that vibrate can also lead to ulnar tunnel syndrome.
You’re more likely to develop ulnar tunnel syndrome if you:
- work with vibrating tools
- have hand trauma
- do tasks with repetitive pressure on the hands
- cycle or lift weights
Your doctor will begin by taking your medical history and performing a physical exam. They’ll examine your elbow, wrist, and hand. Your doctor may also do a simple test to see if you feel tingling after tapping on your ulnar nerve.
Your doctor may order the following tests:
These imaging tests can help your doctor diagnose ulnar tunnel syndrome and rule out the possibility of another medical problem causing your symptoms.
Since many ulnar tunnel syndrome cases are caused by ganglions or cysts, surgery is necessary to remove them and treat the condition. However, other causes of ulnar tunnel syndrome may be treated with nonsurgical options.
Nonsurgical options are safer, faster, and easier, but they may not be as effective. Talk to your doctor to determine the best treatment option for your ulnar tunnel syndrome.
Surgery is necessary to remove the ganglion or cyst that’s causing the pressure on your wrist. Scars and other growths may also need to be removed if they cause ulnar tunnel syndrome. Another option is to use surgery to relieve the pressure in the wrist by cutting a ligament.
After the surgery, you should feel relief. The tingling, pain, and numbness should disappear. However, it may take several months for your ulnar nerve to heal completely. You’ll need to do rehabilitation therapy and specific exercises during the recovery process. Your doctor can give you more information about the rehab exercises that are right for you.
The nonsurgical options for treating ulnar tunnel syndrome involve identifying what’s causing the pressure or trauma in your hand or wrist. You may need to switch to ergonomic and padded tools or other objects. You may also need to change jobs, eliminate vibrating tools, and hold your wrists in a different way.
Physical, occupational, and massage therapies may help relieve symptoms. Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription pain relievers or anti-inflammatory drugs may also help. Your doctor may recommend corticosteroid injections for temporary relief. You may also benefit from wearing a splint or wrist brace.
You can do several things at home to manage the symptoms of ulnar tunnel syndrome. Try these tips:
- Adjust how you work or type.
- Use ergonomic and padded tools.
- Avoid activities that aggravate your symptoms.
- Avoid resting your elbow on furniture or armrests. This could put pressure on the nerve.
- Apply ice to the area.
- Wear a wrist brace or splint.
- Take OTC pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications.
Without treatment or intervention, ulnar tunnel syndrome can continue to get worse. You may lose the ability to hold things with your hand. Simple tasks such as opening a jar or typing on a computer can become impossible.
Over time, permanent damage to the ulnar nerve may develop. You may also have permanent numbness, weakness, pain, and tingling in your wrist or hand.
However, there are several treatment options for ulnar tunnel syndrome. With proper treatment, you may be able to recover completely.
There are no specific preventive measures that can stop all cases of ulnar tunnel syndrome from developing. However, you may be able to reduce your risk with certain precautions. Follow these tips:
- Take breaks at work to let your wrists and hands rest.
- Use less force and a lighter grip to complete tasks.
- Avoid repetitive tasks or work.
- Avoid using vibrating tools.
- Use ergonomic and padded tools.
- Keep your hands and wrists warm.
- Avoid resting the elbows on armrests or furniture while working.