Pain, Treatment and Exercises for Ulnar Nerve Damage

Unless one went into medicine and perhaps for some of us even then one is typically not aware of the complexity of certain body parts, at least not until they start to hurt. After all, the best design is reflected in how one doesn’t notice it until there’s something wrong which suggests that things are moving quite smoothly otherwise.

Consider the ulnar nerve, which goes from your neck to your arm, running through and along the bones and muscle matter in between. Because its path involves so much winding through and so many parts interacted with, there’s a lot of moving parts that can cause trouble. For instance, the tunnel of tissue located on the inside of your elbow (the medial epicondyle, specifically) is called the cubital tunnel, and this is one of the many spots the ulnar nerve runs through. Another is Guyon’s canal where the nerve enters the hand area en route to giving sensation to the ring and pinky fingers (this is actually why banging the elbow or funny bone causes momentary numbness in only those fingers) and helps control finer motor movement.

Ulnar nerve damage can be sustained in a number of ways. One is cubital tunnel syndrome, which occurs when the nerve gets compressed near the medial epicondyle. There isn’t a lot of tissue present in this narrow space to protect the nerve, and as such this is one of the spots the nerve is most vulnerable to getting compressed or pinched. This can happen when the elbow is bent for a long stretch of time for instance, when you sleep on it that way, or when it lays on the arm rest for a lengthy car or plane ride. In some cases the nerve can even slide out from behind the medial epicondyle, but in any case the compression of the nerve can result in a dull ache on the inside of the elbow, which may be accompanied by numbness in the ring and pinky fingers.

Cubital tunnel syndrome, and essentially ulnar nerve entrapment, is surprisingly common. Overuse repetitive bending or flexing of the elbow, whether for sports, work, or other day-to-day activities can result in this. It can also come about due to an earlier elbow injury, or due to arthritis or bone spurs or even cysts in the vulnerable area that can trap and compress the nerve.

Treatment – Exercises

There are some activities that can be done to help minimize the pain of ulnar nerve damage or entrapment, or otherwise help maintain the condition of the joint or arm.

One exercise that can help address the pain resulting from ulnar nerve damage is the ulnar nerve glide. Nerve gliding exercises can help the nerve move smoothly through surrounding tissues and thus ease pain.

  1. You can do this while seated, or while standing, about 10 times per session (with 3 to 5 sessions daily).
  2. Hold the arm at shoulder level in front of you with the palm facing upward. Keep the arm straight and move the hand toward the body, flexing at the wrist as you do so, and then away.
  3. Hold this position and bend the elbow, so that the palm comes near the face.
  4. Alternatively, you could do this from the side arms out at the sides, shoulder level and palm up; bring the hand to cover your ear with the palm, and with your fingers around the back of your neck.

Isometric elbow exercises, on the other hand, can strengthen the muscles in the area without the aggravating, repetitive movement of other exercises that might tax the joint. These can be done to prevent muscle loss the inactivity of resting the joint might contribute to this, and thus must be counteracted.

  1. 10 seconds per set with a 10-second break between sets. 10 sets a day will do.
  2. You’re looking to strengthen your bicep muscles at the front of your upper arm. Bend the elbow 90 degrees with the palm up, and use your other hand to push your forearm down. This will create resistance in the muscle.
  3. You can use this position to strengthen your triceps muscles (back of the upper arm) by pushing in the opposite direction upward with the bent arm. Note that the elbow should never move during isometric exercises.

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