27: Ulnar Neuropathy (Elbow)

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CHAPTER 27

Ulnar Neuropathy (Elbow)

Lyn D. Weiss, MD

Jay M. Weiss, MD

Synonyms

Cubital tunnel syndrome

Tardy ulnar palsy

Ulnar neuritis

Compression of the ulnar nerve

ICD-9 Code

354.2  Lesion of ulnar nerve

ICD-10 Codes

G56.20  Lesion of ulnar nerve, unspecified upper limb

G56.21  Lesion of ulnar nerve, right upper limb

G56.22  Lesion of ulnar nerve, left upper limb

Definition

The ulnar nerve is derived predominantly from the nerve roots of C8 and T1 with a small contribution from C7. The C8 and T1 fibers form the lower trunk of the brachial plexus. The ulnar nerve is the continuation of the medial cord of the brachial plexus at the level of the axilla.

Ulnar neuropathy at the elbow is the second most common entrapment neuropathy. Only carpal tunnel syndrome (median neuropathy at the wrist) is more frequent. The ulnar nerve is susceptible to compression at the elbow for several reasons. First, the nerve has a superficial anatomic location at the elbow. Hitting the “funny bone” (ulnar nerve at the elbow) creates an unpleasant sensation that most people have experienced. If the ulnar nerve is susceptible to subluxation, further injury may result. Second, the nerve is prone to repeated trauma from leaning on the elbow or repetitively flexing and extending the elbow. Poorly healing fractures at the elbow may damage this nerve. Finally, and perhaps most important, the ulnar nerve can become entrapped at the arcade of Struthers, in the cubital tunnel (ulnar collateral ligament and aponeurosis between the two heads of the flexor carpi ulnaris; Fig. 27.1), or within the flexor carpi ulnaris muscle. The nerve lengthens and becomes taut with elbow flexion. In addition, there is decreased space in the cubital tunnel in this position. The volume of the cubital tunnel is maximal in extension and can decrease by 50% with elbow flexion [1]. The nerve may also become compromised after a distal humerus fracture, either as a direct result of the fracture or because of an altered carrying angle of the elbow and decreased elbow extension (tardy ulnar palsy). Repetitive or incorrect throwing can lead to damage of the ulnar nerve at the elbow [2]. Biomechanical risk factors (repetitive holding of a tool in one position), obesity, and other associated upper extremity work-related musculoskeletal disorders (especially medial epicondylitis and other nerve entrapment disorders) have also been associated with the development of ulnar neuropathy at the elbow [3].

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FIGURE 27.1 The cubital tunnel. (From Bernstein J, ed. Musculoskeletal Medicine. Rosemont, Ill, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2003.)

Symptoms

If the ulnar nerve is entrapped at the elbow, both the dorsal ulnar cutaneous nerve (which arises just proximal to the wrist) and the palmar cutaneous branch of the ulnar nerve will be affected. Patients will therefore complain of numbness or paresthesias in the dorsal and volar aspects of the fifth and ulnar side of the fourth digits. Hand intrinsic muscle weakness may be apparent. In cases of severe ulnar neuropathy, clawing of the fourth and fifth digits (with attempted hand opening) and atrophy of the intrinsic muscles may be noted by the patient (Fig. 27.2). Symptoms may be exacerbated by elbow flexion. Pain may be noted and may radiate proximally or distally.

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FIGURE 27.2 Froment sign. Note prominent atrophy of the intrinsic muscles. (From Weiss L, Silver J, Weiss J, eds. Easy EMG. New York, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2004.)

Physical Examination

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