Pain and numbness in the fingers are often associated with carpal tunnel syndrome. However, the less known cubital tunnel syndrome causes just as severe numbness, tingling, pain and muscle weakness as carpal tunnel. Both conditions are caused by increased pressure from either bone or connective tissue on a nerve in the arm, wrist or elbow. Read on to find out the difference between cubital tunnel syndrome vs carpal tunnel.
What’s the Difference Between Cubital Tunnel Syndrome vs Carpal Tunnel?
Both conditions, as mentioned, result from nerve compression. The difference is where the nerve is located. In the case of cubital tunnel, the ulnar nerve located within the elbow gets compressed due to repeated elbow bending or injury. The ulnar nerve is found inside the cubital tunnel, a passage that consists of bone, ligaments and muscle.
Carpal tunnel syndrome, on the other hand, results from the compression of the median nerve in the wrist. There is no known cause of carpal tunnel syndrome, but certain factors increase the risk. Repetitive hand and wrist motions like when you are typing or playing a musical instrument, sprains, fractures, and underlying conditions like diabetes increase the risk.
Carpal tunnel can be hereditary and therefore runs in families. Knowing the symptoms of each disorder will help you identify the condition when you present with symptoms and determine the right treatment options.
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome vs Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: What are the Symptoms?
Both cubital and carpal tunnel syndrome affect the fingers and hand, causing pain, tingling and numbness. The pain and numbness in carpal tunnel are felt more in the index fingers, thumb, middle finger, and about half of the ring finger. You may also feel a burning sensation in the wrist and hand, sometimes radiating up the forearm to the elbow.
In the case of cubital tunnel syndrome, the pain, numbness and tingling are more pronounced in the ring and little finger and inside the hand. The symptoms flare up mostly at night when you bend your elbow as you sleep.
How are Cubital Tunnel and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treated?
Treatment options differ for each condition, but conservative therapies are the first line of treatment to restore lost function and alleviate the symptoms before opting for hand surgery. Since cubital tunnel syndrome is more pronounced at night, your doctor may advise you to wear a brace at night to straighten the elbow while you sleep. Ideally, wrapping the arm in a towel will also keep it straight.
If these treatment options don’t work or there is severe muscle wasting, your doctor may suggest surgery. There are two surgical options for cubital tunnel syndrome – medial epicondylectomy and ulnar nerve transposition.
In medial epicondylectomy, the doctor will make an incision and remove the bony bump inside your elbow. Doing that allows the ulnar nerve to straighten and flex without any pain. In ulnar nerve transposition, the surgeon creates a completely new cubital tunnel and moves the ulnar nerve there.
When it comes to carpal tunnel syndrome, the doctor will recommend treating the condition non-surgically first. Rest from activities that may worsen the symptoms, wearing a splint for a few weeks and applying ice can help. The doctor may also prescribe steroids and non-inflammatory drugs. If the treatment works and there is no longer any pain, your doctor may recommend special hand exercises to stretch and strengthen the hand and wrist.
Surgery may be necessary if the treatments don’t work or there is already nerve damage. Carpal tunnel syndrome surgery is done to relieve pressure on the nerve by cutting the transverse carpal ligament. The procedure is followed by hand therapy to strengthen the wrist and hand and restore lost function if any.
If you suspect you may have carpal tunnel vs cubital tunnel syndrome, book an appointment at the Harley Clinic to talk about your treatment options.