Have you ever seen a diagram of the nerves in your body? It’s pretty impressive. The way your nervous system works to keep you moving through everyday life is complex and beautiful. Unfortunately, the complexity of your nerves also is largely responsible for a number of things that can go wrong or break down over time. Ulnar neuropathy is one of these and can be caused by fairly run-of-the-mill circumstances.
Numbness, Tingling and Loss of Hand Function
Ulnar neuropathy describes the condition in which you suffer an injury to the ulnar nerve that causes numbness, tingling, and the loss of motor function in your hands. Your ulnar nerve is one of the major nerves in your arm – it’s located near the ulna bone (the bone in the forearm on the pinkie side). When this nerve is injured, it can affect everything the nerve controls. Once you realize what this particular nerve controls, it’s pretty obvious what a big deal ulnar neuropathy can be. The ulnar nerve helps stimulate the flexor muscles of your hand, which allow it to bend or move, and provides sensation to the fourth finger, fifth finger, and forearm.
Common Causes of Ulnar Neuropathy
Ulnar neuropathy is caused by ulnar nerve entrapment, which means the nerve is being compressed. Ulnar nerve entrapment is the second most common type of nerve entrapment in the body, and it can happen at almost any point in the arm along the ulnar nerve. The most common spot for this to occur is at or near the elbow, but it can also happen near the wrist or in the upper arm. Anywhere the arm can bend can theoretically put pressure on the nerve. Any of the following can lead to ulnar nerve neuropathy:
- Leaning on your elbow for an extended period of time
- An old injury in the elbow, wrist, or shoulder
- Bone spurs
- Swelling in the elbow or wrist
When to See a Doctor
Because the condition can worsen with time if you don’t get it taken care of quickly, you should see a doctor as soon as you notice symptoms. In fact, ignoring it long term can result in permanent loss of function. We’ve already talked about a few of the symptoms you may notice with ulnar neuropathy, such as numbness or tingling, but here are some others to watch for:
- A weak grip
- Pain or tenderness in the elbow
- Intermittent numbness and tingling in the ring and pinkie fingers
- Feeling like your ring or pinkie fingers are falling asleep
- Sensitivity to cold temperatures
- Noticing that it’s difficult to control your fingers for precise tasks
If you notice these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as you can. Your physician will probably ask you a few questions about your regular day-to-day activities, your medical history, and probably medications you may take. Your doctor will likely do a physical exam and might order X-rays to check on the area to see what’s happening with the nerves inside your arm. Based on the severity of the nerve entrapment, your doctor will determine the best route for treatment, which can range from rest and over-the-counter medication to surgery and physical therapy.
Dr. Nolla is a board-certified Orthopedics specialist and surgeon who cares for patients at Berthelsen Main Campus and Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. His clinical interests include upper extremity surgery from hand to elbow and minimally invasive surgery including endoscopic carpal tunnel.