Elbow Pain? It Could Be Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Ever heard of cellphone elbow? You have now
If you’ve ever banged your so-called “funny bone,” you know there’s nothing funny about the pain it causes. That “bone” isn’t even a bone — it’s a nerve that passes around the back of the elbow. And that nerve can get very sore if you spend long periods of time on a smartphone or computer.
Cubital tunnel syndrome (CTS), aka cellphone elbow, is caused by increased tension in the tunnel the ulnar nerve passes through in the elbow, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Any repetitive activity in which the elbow is bent at an angle greater than 90 degrees can lead to CTS. It’s the second most common nerve compression in the arm, second to carpal tunnel syndrome. Symptoms can include numbness and tingling in the ring and small finger and soreness in the forearm and hand.
The good news is if you've been experiencing elbow or inner arm pain, you don’t need to go cold turkey on technology. Most people who experience early or mild CTS can find relief by making a few simple modifications.
Get a diagnosis. Either a physician or physical therapist can diagnose CTS and recommend treatment. It typically involves identifying the activities causing your symptoms and either taking a break from them or modifying them. According to the AAOS, unless your nerve compression has caused muscle wasting, your doctor will probably recommend ice for inflammation. Anti-inflammatory medications and splints also can help.
More advanced cases of CTS may require surgery.
Sleep straight. If you sleep with your elbows bent or your hands tucked under your head, you may aggravate the nerve compression. The American Society for Surgery of the Hand recommends wrapping a towel loosely around the elbow or wearing a splint or elbow pad at night to prevent your elbow from bending.
Get computer savvy. Do you spend long hours hunched over a computer? If so, the Harvard Health Report recommends setting your keyboard on an adjustable tray and adjusting it so your forearms are parallel to the floor, your wrists are straight and in line with your forearms and your elbows are relaxed and bent at a 90-degree angle at your waist.
Also, take frequent breaks throughout the day, and gently stretch your forearm muscles. Consider using a wrist brace or elastic sports and fitness tape designed for muscle, ligament and tendon support.
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Go hands-free. If you find yourself talking on the phone for hours at a time, the Harvard Health Report recommends using a Bluetooth or hands-free headset rather than holding your phone to your ear. It also can help to switch hands frequently.
Stretch and strengthen. A physical therapist can show you strengthening and stretching exercises that can help cure CTS. For example, range of motion and nerve and tendon gliding exercises can help the ulnar nerve slide through the cubital tunnel and improve symptoms. The American Physical Therapy Association recommends working with a physical therapist who has helped patients with CTS.
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