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Ulnar nerve dysfunction

 

Definition

Ulnar nerve dysfunction is a problem with the nerve that travels from the wrist to the shoulder, which leads to movement or sensation problems in the wrist and hand.

Alternative Names

Neuropathy - ulnar nerve; Ulnar nerve palsy

Causes

Ulnar nerve dysfunction is a common form of peripheral neuropathy. It occurs when there is damage to the ulnar nerve, which travels down the arm. The ulnar nerve is near the surface of the body where it crosses the elbow, so long-term pressure on the elbow may cause damage.

The damage involves the destruction of the nerve covering (myelin sheath) or part of the nerve (axon). This damage slows or prevents nerve signaling.

A problem with one single nerve group (such as the ulnar nerve) is called mononeuropathy. The usual causes are:

  • Direct injury
  • Long-term pressure on the nerve
  • Pressure on the nerve caused by swelling or injury of nearby body structures

Entrapment involves pressure on the nerve where it passes through a narrow structure.

The ulnar nerve is commonly injured at the elbow because of elbow fracture or dislocation. Prolonged pressure on the base of the palm may also damage part of the ulnar nerve. Temporary pain and tingling of this nerve is common if the elbow is hit, producing the experience of hitting the "funny bone" at the elbow.

In some cases, no cause can be found.

Symptoms
  • Abnormal sensations in the 4th or 5th fingers, usually on the palm side
  • Numbness, decreased sensation
  • Pain
  • Tingling, burning sensation
  • Weakness of the hand

Pain or numbness may awaken you from sleep. Activities such as tennis or golf make the condition worse.

Signs and tests

An exam of the hand and wrist can reveal ulnar nerve dysfunction. Signs may include:

  • "Claw-like" deformity (in severe cases)
  • Difficulty moving the fingers
  • Wasting of the hand muscles (in severe cases)
  • Weakness of wrist and hand bending

A detailed history may be needed to determine the cause of the neuropathy.

Tests may include:

Support Groups

Expectations (prognosis)

If the cause of the dysfunction can be found and successfully treated, you may make a full recovery.

Disability can vary from none to partial or complete loss of movement or sensation. Nerve pain may be uncomfortable and last a long time. If pain is severe and continuing, see a pain specialist to be sure you have access to all pain treatment options.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if:

  • You have symptoms of ulnar nerve dysfunction
  • You have been injured and you experience persistent tingling, numbness, or pain down your forearm and the 4th and 5th fingers.

Early diagnosis and treatment increase the chance of controlling the symptoms.

Complications
  • Deformity of the hand
  • Partial or complete loss of sensation in the hand or fingers
  • Partial or complete loss of wrist or hand movement
  • Recurrent or unnoticed injury to the hand
Treatments

The goal of treatment is to allow you to use the hand and arm as much as possible. The cause should be identified and treated. Sometimes, no treatment is required and you will get better on your own.

Treatments may include:

  • A supportive splint or elbow pad to help prevent further injury
  • Corticosteroids injected into the area to reduce swelling and pressure on the nerve
  • Surgery to relieve pressure on the nerve, if the symptoms get worse, movement is difficult, or there is proof that part of the nerve is wasting away. Surgical decompression may be recommended if the symptoms are from entrapment of the nerve.
  • Over-the-counter analgesics or prescription pain medications to control pain (neuralgia)
  • Other medications, including gabapentin, phenytoin, carbamazepine, or tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline or duloxetine, to reduce stabbing pains.
  • Physical therapy exercises to help maintain muscle strength
  • Occupational counseling, occupational therapy, job changes, or retraining
Prevention

Prevention varies depending on the cause. Avoid prolonged pressure on the elbow or palm. Casts, splints, and other appliances should always be examined for proper fit.


Review Date: 9/25/2008
Reviewed By: Daniel B. Hoch, PhD, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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