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What is ulnar nerve entrapment?

The ulnar nerve is one of three main nerves located in the arm. This is the nerve that gets hurt when someone hits their “funny bone.” It travels down the neck through the arm and down to the two fingers of the hand but remains very close to the surface of the skin. This leaves the nerve unprotected by muscle or bone. During its journey through the arm, the ulnar nerve can become trapped at the elbow or wrist joint causing compression of the nerve.

When the ulnar nerve becomes entrapped, individuals may experience a range of symptoms:

  • Tingling or numbness
  • Weakened grip in the hand
  • “Pins and needles” in the hand or arm
  • Trouble moving fingers
  • Generalized pain

In some cases of ulnar nerve entrapment, there is no identifiable cause. However, some activities and conditions are linked to a higher likelihood of entrapment at the elbow or wrist:

  • Repetitive sports motions, such as swinging a tennis racket or pressing your hands against bicycle handlebars
  • Repetitive motions at work, such as leaning your elbows on your desk or holding a telephone to your ear for long periods of time
  • Arthritis of the elbow or prior injuries

Treatment Options

Nonsurgical options for ulnar nerve entrapment include pain medication to prevent further swelling, bracing or splinting the arm to avoid inappropriate, prolonged movement, and hand therapy. Hand therapy can involve the work of a physical or occupational therapist who provides stretching and strengthening exercises.

Ulnar nerve release or transposition surgery may be required for more serious cases. The surgery involves relocation of the nerve to a more suitable (and subsequently less painful) position in the arm. Recovery can take several weeks and may require use of a brace for the affected area.

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