If you’ve been managing varying degrees of hand, wrist, elbow, and arm pain, you’ve probably spent a fair amount of time browsing the internet looking for the answers to your problems.
You may have come across two potential diagnoses: carpal tunnel and cubital tunnel. While they’re similar in name (and even in the presentation) they’re not the same thing, commented houston hand surgeon, Dr. Baher Maximos. Without a proper diagnosis though, you might not know what you’re dealing with.
When you’re looking at the differences between carpal tunnel vs cubital tunnel syndromes, you’re going to be identifying more specific aspects of your pain.
How exactly do you feel? What brings you relief? Where do you think the pain has been coming from?
If you want more insight on these conditions to help shine a light on what you might be dealing with, keep reading to learn all about carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, and the differences between them.
What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
The carpal tunnel is an actual tunnel, or passageway, inside the wrist. It runs up the palm side of your hand and it’s surrounded by a variety of bones and ligaments.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is what happens when the median nerve in the general location of your wrist receives too much compression or pressure. The person suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome will begin to feel numbness, pain, and even increased weakness in the hand, wrist, and arm that’s being affected. “If you feel numbness and tingling, specifically in the thumb, index, middle, and half of the ring finger, it is most likely the median nerve involved,” said Dr. Maximos.
Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome has many different causes, some of which seem minimal. The anatomy of your wrist is a factor. Some people are simply predisposed to carpal tunnel syndrome. Certain health problems (such as inflammatory conditions, obesity, and thyroid disorders) can also contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome.
A primary contributor, though, is the use of repetitive hand motions. This can be drawing, typing, waving, certain types of sports, writing, or really any kind of activity that requires frequent movement of the hands and wrists.
Many people who work with their hands experience carpal tunnel syndrome, making their work more difficult.
3 times more women end up with carpal tunnel syndrome than men, though this is thought largely to be due to the difference in types of work and activities that are completed by both.
Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
If you find yourself with hand, arm, or wrist discomfort, there are a few symptoms to look out for to identify if you might be dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Pain or discomfort is a symptom, though it’s rarely extreme. It can often be most noticeable when clenching the hand into a fist. You may also find it difficult to make a fist at all.
Numbness or tingling is the most common symptom of carpal tunnel syndrome. The numbness can range anywhere from the hands up through the elbow and can be constant or periodic. The numbness can be to the touch (or, you can not feel sensation when touching that part of your arm) or a general “numb” feeling.
The tingling feels similar to the pins and needles that one can get when a body part “falls asleep”. It can be gentle or feel sharp, like small shocks, depending on the severity. It can happen at rest or while doing activities, and while it can sometimes be “shaken out”, the feeling can also become constant.
Weakness can develop over time or even be immediate. The median nerve helps to control the thumb muscles (otherwise called thenar muscles), making it possible to lose control of the thumb for short periods of time. You may find yourself losing grip and dropping objects, or just feeling your hand and arm grow more fatigued over time.
Any of these symptoms should be brought up to a doctor. Permanent nerve or muscle damage can be the ending result of unchecked carpal tunnel syndrome.
Prevention of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome is sometimes unavoidable, but there are ways to help prevent issues if you’re not predisposed to it.
If you work in conditions that require frequent repetitive hand or wrist movement, it’s important to have proper wrist support and to take breaks. Using those breaks to relax and stretch your wrists can be helpful. Preventative exercise, like wrist-strengthening yoga or stretching routines, can help prevent problems in the future.
Keeping hands warm and improving their posture while doing work can also help avoid constricting that nerve in your hand. You don’t want to keep wrists bent at an angle at all times. You want to keep them in a comfortable and neutral position.
Diagnosis of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
While a doctor may be able to identify your problem based solely on your history and symptoms, they may also want to run a few tests to ensure that you’re receiving the best possible care.
Sometimes a physical examination is enough. A doctor can test your hands and fingers and see where you have certain sensations. The median nerve won’t contribute to sensation in your pinky finger, meaning that if your pinky finger is impacted, it may be a different problem altogether.
A doctor may do an x-ray to rule out other potential conditions, like fractures, that could be causing your discomfort.
Treatment of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
There are two primary ways to deal with carpal tunnel: surgical and nonsurgical.
Many doctors recommend nonsurgical treatment for mild cases. This is going to be similar to preventative measures. You’re going to avoid putting pressure on the hands and wrists.
You can use ice packs to reduce swelling, and a doctor may recommend a wrist splint to help you avoid unnecessary harmful movement. They may also suggest a steroid injection.
If this isn’t sufficient, surgery is an option for serious cases. The ligament pressing on the median nerve will be cut, releasing the pressure causing the syndrome. While there are risks to this surgery, it can be effective. Some symptoms, however, may never fully go away.
Dr. Maximos of Hand Surgery Specialists of Texas said, “Our preferred treatment of patients with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome that fails to resolve with conservative treatment is the Endoscopic Carpal Tunnel Release.”
What is Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?
Cubital tunnel and carpal tunnel sound alike in name, but they’re different and require different treatment plans. Cubital tunnel syndrome isn’t as widely known, so let’s talk about it.
Cubital tunnel syndrome is what happens when the ulnar nerve becomes compressed inside the cubital tunnel. As it’s in a tight space, this is not an uncommon condition and the compression can happen quite easily.
This can lead to similar symptoms are carpal tunnel: pain, weakness, and numbness and tingling. What’s different about it, is that the pinky and the other half of the ring finger are usually numb.
Causes of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
There are many potential causes of cubital tunnel syndrome.
Any repetitive use of the elbow can result in this nerve being pinched enough to trigger the syndrome. If the tunnel is already inflamed or narrowed (by an inflammatory condition, for example, this increases the risk).
If there has been a nearby fracture or dislocation, or if the patient has been suffering from arthritis of the elbow, they have an increased risk for cubital tunnel syndrome.
Surprisingly, if the patient has suffered from compressed nerves in nearby areas (such as the neck) they may also be at increased risk for cubital tunnel syndrome.
Symptoms of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital tunnel syndrome is going to present itself on the inner part of the elbow (close to where the “ditch” of the arm is).
Cubital tunnel syndrome may present first as a dull pain through the inner elbow that throbs out. It may also present as numbness or tingling that goes down from the elbow into the fingers, reaching the ring and pinky fingers.
There may be a popping sensation during certain arm movements (though this is also present in other conditions) and in serious cases, the patient may begin to experience muscle atrophy and serious weakness in the affected arm.
Prevention of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Keeping arms flexible and strong is essential for the prevention of cubital tunnel. If your work or sport has the potential for causing cubital tunnel syndrome, it’s important to stretch and warm-up beforehand to avoid injuries that can increase your risk for developing it.
Diagnosis of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital tunnel syndrome can be diagnosed through a patient history exam and a physical examination, though a doctor may want to conduct more tests if the results indicate more than one possibility.
An x-ray might be done to rule out any other conditions, and a nerve conduction test can help find where the nerve constriction is happening.
Treatment of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
The treatment of cubital tunnel syndrome, provided that it’s mild, is largely noninvasive.
Patients should rest their elbows, use splints or pads to protect the area, and take over the counter anti-inflammatory medications. Generally, this is enough to ease the problem.
If the pain or numbness persists, more intense measures may need to be taken. Nerve decompression surgery and nerve relocation surgery are two popular options for cubital tunnel syndrome recovery. A doctor may also recommend an injection of a steroid before opting for surgery.
Carpal Tunnel vs Cubital Tunnel Syndromes: In Summary
While these two syndromes sound similar, they’re actually quite different. While they both impact the arms and hands, they’re entirely different conditions with entirely different sources. They require different treatment plans. When identifying carpal vs cubital tunnel syndromes, consider the following.
If you’re suffering from pain in your hands and arms, try to identify where the discomfort is coming from.
If the numbness continues through to your pinky finger, it’s highly unlikely that you’re suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. The median nerve doesn’t extend to that finger, however, the ulnar nerve (in cubital tunnel syndrome) does. This can be one indication that you’re suffering from cubital tunnel syndrome or something else altogether.
If you feel more pain or numbness in your wrist, you’re feeling it around the median nerve. If you feel the tingling near the inner part of your elbow (it can sometimes prompt you to “shake it out”), you might be feeling it in the ulnar nerve.
While both of these can send pins and needles up through your fingers, the cubital tunnel syndrome is likely to send them up higher through your arm.
While weakness is an issue in both syndromes, issues with weakness of grip are largely going to be due to carpal tunnel syndrome because of the way the median nerve impacts the movement of the thumb.
Carpal tunnel has more common risk factors than cubital tunnel. Anyone working a desk job or who writes or creates art is at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, especially if they are not frequently stretching and strengthening their wrists. This makes it fairly common.
Cubital tunnel, because of its location, is less common. That said, if a desk worker frequently leans hard onto their elbows, it is more than possible for them to develop the syndrome and the need to wear protective equipment.
Both syndromes can be treated at home with therapeutic measures, over the counter medications, and braces. They both may also require surgery.
Carpal and Cubital Tunnel Syndromes Are Not the Same
While alike in name, carpal tunnel vs cubital tunnel syndrome are quite different and have similar, though different treatments.
If you think that you may be suffering from one of these conditions, it’s important that you see a qualified physician or specialist to help you identify the problem and find the treatment that will work best for you. Depending on the severity of your condition and your lifestyle factors, you may require surgery or you may be able to get away with at-home care.
For more information, or to find a specialist, visit our website. You can make an appointment today or browse through our list of potential conditions to see what matches your symptoms.