Cubital Tunnel Syndrome and Other Nerve Compression Syndromes

Conditions resulting from pressure on nerves can be treated with specific exercises

The nervous system is the line of communication spans the entirety of the body and allows for all of its movements and functions to take place. But when a nerve is damaged and unable to transmit its message properly, it can lead to communication issues and a range of possible symptoms that can make movement more difficult.

This is the case with nerve compression syndromes, which is a group of disorders that occur when a nerve is squeezed or compacted by another structure in the area. Nerve compression syndromes involve the peripheral nerves—those outside of the brain and spinal cord—and are usually caused by repetitive movements that eventually impinge upon the nerve. There are several different types of nerve compression syndromes, with carpal tunnel syndrome being the most common, followed by cubital tunnel syndrome.

The cubital tunnel is located in the elbow and contains the ulnar nerve, which supplies sensation to the ring and little fingers. The ulnar nerve travels from the neck down to the hand, and it can be compressed—or pushed on—by other structures at any point along the way. But the most common place this occurs is behind the inside part of the elbow, where the cubital tunnel is located.

The result of this compression of the ulnar nerve is cubital tunnel syndrome. Symptoms typically include pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the arm and hand, which is particularly concentrated in the ring and little fingers. Cubital tunnel syndrome is also caused by daily habits like leaning on the elbow for long periods of time, sleeping with the arms bent, or from direct trauma to the ulnar nerve, like hitting your funny bone.

Other nerve compression syndromes include the following:

  • Cervical radiculopathy: results from compression of one of the nerve roots in the neck when it splits from the spinal cord; symptoms include a burning pain in the neck and down the arm, and weakness, numbness, and/or tingling in the fingers
  • Lumbar radiculopathy: occurs due to compression of a nerve root in the lower back when it branches away from the spinal cord; symptoms include pain, numbness, weakness, and/or tingling down the leg and sometimes into the foot
  • Piriformis syndrome: a rare condition occurring when a muscle in the buttocks (the piriformis) puts pressure on the sciatic nerve; the most common symptoms are tenderness in the buttocks and pain traveling down the thigh, calf, and foot
  • Other: Guyon’s canal syndrome, radial nerve compression syndrome, and thoracic outlet syndrome; symptoms typically include aches and pains, tingling or numbness, weakness, and reduced flexibility

Physical therapy and exercise can help reduce symptoms

If you begin to notice symptoms that suggest a nerve compression syndrome is present, physical therapy is often the best option available to manage your condition. A typical physical therapy treatment program may include bracing or splinting, modalities like ultrasound and electrical stimulation, and advice on how to make modifications to your lifestyle and posture. Another important component of treatment is exercise, particularly nerve gliding exercises, which help to maintain the health of nerves and restore their mobility if it has been lost. Below are four examples of nerve gliding exercises that can address cubital tunnel syndrome by targeting the ulnar nerve:

Physical therapists can provide you with a specific set of exercises for your condition and guide you to ensure you’re performing them correctly. They can also educate you on how to avoid certain movements that will further irritate your nerves in order to alleviate your symptoms.