The nerve which runs close to the ulna bone is called the ulnar nerve. The main function of this nerve is to transfer messages from the forearm and hand, to be specific ring and little fingers to the spinal cord and central nervous system. Moreover, it controls the movements of other large and small muscles in the hand. It's the only nerve in the human body which remains unprotected by bones or muscles. If there's an injury to any area through which this nerve passes, especially in area between the shoulder and wrists, it may result in ulnar nerve damage. Moreover, in case there's a pinched nerve or it's trapped due to any reason, this condition may occur.
There may be several causes of ulnar nerve damage. As the nerve extends from the shoulder to the wrists and passes through several outlets; damage to any part in the route of the nerve can cause it to be pinched or trapped. The incidences that can lead to this situation are elbow dislocation, fracture, swollen soft tissues as well as external pressure and postures that can subject this nerves to pressure. One of the most common causes of this condition is disease or injury of the cervical spine.
If the nerve is seriously damaged, there are chances that a person's fingers may be immobilized for life. Another common cause of this condition includes brachial plexus. Brachial plexus is a complex system of nerve fibers, which originates from the spinal cord and runs through the neck to the arm. In case there's an abnormality in the elbow such as fractures, plate injuries, etc., it may cause damage to the ulnar nerve. Other reasons for damage to this nerve include blood clot in the arteries in the places where the nerve runs, rheumatism, hypothyroidism, diabetes and tumors.
One of the most common symptoms of ulnar nerve damage is a feeling of numbness in the little and ring finger, particularly if you keep the elbow bent. Moreover, there may be extreme feeling of pain inside the elbow. At times, it may become difficult to move the hand and fingers, besides, it may be tough to hold any object. The feeling of numbness and extreme pain is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, but the difference is that, carpal tunnel syndrome involves injury to the median nerve. Numbness and tingling sensations are mostly in the long and index fingers, besides the thumb. Whenever there is damage to the ulnar nerve, it may become difficult for you to hold a phone or you may find it hard to drive.
Treatment options for this condition aims at allowing a person to move the hands and fingers as much as possible. The cause should be properly identified for the proper treatment. There may be times in which no treatment is required, and it would go away on its own. Some of the most common treatment option include:
- A splint or a pad to support the elbow and prevent it form injuring further.
- Injections, especially corticosteroids, so as to reduce swelling.
- In case symptoms get worse, surgery may be required.
- Pain relieving medications and over the counter analgesics.
- Exercises, so that the muscles gain its normal strength.
Surgery for Ulnar Nerve Damage
The surgery is usually not required, but in some cases when the symptoms become worse, surgery may be required. In case the medical professional finds out that movement of the hand has become almost impossible, surgery is done. Surgery is recommended only after all other options have been exhausted and if it's not done, the arm may be permanently damaged. This option is also chosen if the patient is suffering from cubital tunnel syndrome. It is a gap between two heads of a muscle known as flexor carpi ulnaris. Ulnar nerve uses this tunnel to navigate the elbow and enter the forearm. While doing this it passes close to the bump or the funny bone close to the elbow on the inner side of upper arm. Sometimes movements of elbow pushes ulnar nerve so close to the bump that it affects its stretching and the problem starts. The nerve can be freed in two ways:
- Ulnar nerve transposition: The ulnar nerve is moved surgically to the front of the bump. The doctor may choose to move it just under the skin or muscles in the area to offer it added protection. Its new place allows it free movement especially when the elbow is bent.
- Medial epicondylectomy: The bump obstructing the nerve is removed surgically to allow the nerve to slide over it and back when the elbow is bent and flexed, respectively.
Initially, whenever there's damage of the ulnar nerve, exercise and physical therapy is recommended. They can be a useful tool to gain muscle strength. There are certain weights, stretching exercises and training programs which specifically aims at alleviating pain. Exercises and physical therapy may not necessarily reverse the damage caused, but it can prevent further damage of the muscles and nerves.
So, there may be several causes of ulnar nerve damage, but you need to ensure that in case this condition arises, get the help of a medical professional immediately. As with all medical conditions, it's important for you to consult a doctor, as he knows the best.