Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or Cubital Tunnel Syndrome – How to Tell Which One You Have

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or Cubital Tunnel Syndrome – How to Tell Which One You Have

Do you have numbness and tingling in your fingers? You might have a compressed nerve. 

There are two conditions that typically cause these uncomfortable symptoms: cubital tunnel syndrome and carpal tunnel syndrome.

You’ll be able to tell which one you have by which fingers are tingling or numb. 

Cubital tunnel syndrome affects your ring and pinky finger. It is caused by a pinched nerve at the elbow (the ulnar nerve). 

Carpal tunnel syndrome tends to affect your thumb, index and middle finger, and is caused by a pinched nerve at the wrist (the median nerve). 

About Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

What Causes It?

Ulnar nerve compression is often caused by bone spurs, swelling in the elbow, and elbow dislocations. Those with diabetes are at higher risk for developing cubital tunnel syndrome. It can also occur in people who hold their elbow bent at more than 90 degrees for long periods of time, bend their elbow repeatedly, sleep with their elbow bent, or lean on their elbow for long periods. 

Cubital tunnel syndrome can be caused by joint damage from arthritis. However, it doesn’t usually happen unless you’ve had arthritis for a while, as arthritis in the elbow is uncommon.

How to Know for Sure if You Have it

If you are experiencing tingling, numbness, weakness or pain in your pinky-side fingers, talk to your doctor. They will be able to tell you if you have cubital tunnel syndrome through nerve conduction studies, which locate the place where the nerve is being compressed. X-rays can detect the cause of the compression, such as a bone spur or arthritis. 

How to Treat Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

The best way to treat cubital tunnel syndrome is to reduce the swelling in the elbow that’s pressing on the ulnar nerve. To do this, you must avoid bending your elbow beyond 90 degrees while sleeping and during activities. 

A splint will keep your arm from bending as you sleep. During the day, avoid putting your arm on armrests, keeping your arm bent for long periods of time, leading on your elbow, or sitting in a chair that’s too low for the desk you’re using. Short phone calls are probably fine, but if you talk on the phone a lot, try using a headset or earphones instead of holding the phone up to your ear.

About Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

What Causes it? 

Think of your wrist as one big tube, with many smaller tubes running through it. Normally, there is enough room for all the smaller tubes to fit comfortably. But if the space in the tunnel shrinks, the tubes get squished and their capacity is reduced.

The big wrist tube is actually called the “carpal tunnel.” It consists of:

  • Carpal bones (which make up the bottom and sides of the tunnel
  • Ligament (which makes up the top of the tunnel, a strong tissue that holds the tunnel together)
  • Median nerve: This nerve provides feeling to most of the fingers in the hand (expect the little finger). It also adds strength to the base of the thumb and index finger.
  • Tendons: Rope-like structures, tendons connect muscles in the forearm to the bones in the hand. They allow the fingers and thumb to bend.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure on the median nerve from inflammation and swelling in the wrist. This swelling is usually caused by a wrist strain or injury. 

Who Can Get Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome primarily affects people who do activities or jobs that involve repetitive wrist, hand or finger use. This includes high-force motions (like hammering), extreme wrist motions, vibration (like from using a jackhammer) and long-term repetitive motions. 

Your chances of getting it increase with the addition of a number of different factors, including: 

  • Heredity (for instance, if your parents or grandparents have smaller carpal tunnels)
  • Pregnancy
  • Hemodialysis (a process where the blood is filtered)
  • Wrist fracture and dislocation
  • Hand or wrist deformity
  • Arthritic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout
  • Thyroid gland hormone imbalance (hypothyroidism)
  • Diabetes
  • Alcoholism
  • A mass (tumor) in the carpal tunnel
  • Older age
  • Amyloid deposits (an abnormal protein)
  • Your gender (women are more likely to get it than men)

More Information About Symptoms

Early symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include numbness at night, and tingling or pain in your thumb-side fingers. People most commonly notice nighttime symptoms first, because of the way our hands tend to naturally curl when we sleep. 

As the condition progresses, people tend to experience more symptoms during the day, such as:

  • Tingling in the fingers
  • Decreased feeling in fingertips
  • Difficult using the hand for small tasks like holding a book, writing or typing

More severe symptoms include:

  • Hand weakness
  • Inability to perform tasks that require delicate motions, like buttoning a shirt
  • Dropping things
  • Wrist muscle atrophy

It is important to note that wrist inflammation and swelling doesn’t always cause carpal tunnel syndrome. Inflammation in the wrist can also be due to:

  • De Quervain’s tendinosis: Common symptoms include feeling pain when you make a fist or go to shake someone’s hand. This condition occurs when swelling affects the wrist and base of the thumb.
  • Arthritis: Common symptoms include stiffness, swelling and pain, but arthritis in the wrist usually doesn’t cause numbness and tingling. 

How to Treat Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Like cubital tunnel syndrome, you must reduce the swelling in the wrist that’s pressing on the median nerve. To do this, you must limit wrist movement until symptoms subside. 

The best way to limit wrist movements is with a wrist splint. It will hold your wrist in a neutral position, while allowing you to still use your fingers. 

Both cubital tunnel elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome are common and easy to treat, so there’s no need to panic. However, it’s best to seek treatment as early as possible as these conditions can worsen over time and can cause lasting damage. 

Interested in our treatment options for cubital tunnel and carpal tunnel syndrome? Check out these splints that were specifically designed to treat each condition: