Carpal tunnel and cubital tunnel syndromes: What’s the difference?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common entrapment neuropathy (i.e., pinched nerve) condition in the human body. Cubital tunnel syndrome is the second most common. 

If you have symptoms such as tingling or numbness in your hand or fingers, do you have carpal tunnel syndrome or cubital tunnel syndrome? Depending on the location of your symptoms, you could have either…or both.

Michael J. Fitzmaurice, MD, an innovative and leading expert in minimally invasive hand surgery explains the difference here. He treats both carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome at the Fitzmaurice Hand Institute™ in Scottsdale, Arizona. 

Carpal tunnel syndrome isn’t just about typing

Although carpal tunnel syndrome first developed a widespread reputation due to its afflicting workers who spent a lot of time on computer keyboards, typing is just one cause, and not necessarily the most common one.  Any repetitive hand or finger motions can be the culprit in carpal tunnel syndrome, particularly those that require force and may even cause the hands and fingers to vibrate, such as:

  • Hammering
  • Using power tools
  • Gardening
  • Golfing
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Butchering
  • Doing assembly-line work

However, you can also develop carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of trauma, such as an accident. You’re more likely to develop it as you age and your tissues degrade. 

When you develop carpal tunnel syndrome, the median nerve that runs from your arm to your thumb and other fingers gets compressed in your wrist. The nerve runs through a bony structure called the carpal tunnel, which is designed to protect both the nerve and other tissues, such as the ligaments and flexor tendons that service your hand and fingers. 

If you repeat the same hand, finger, or wrist movements over and over, those tendons and ligaments get irritated and swollen. The swelling presses against the median nerve, so that it becomes irritated and swollen, too. That’s when you start to feel symptoms in your thumb, fingers, wrist, and arm, such as:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Weakness
  • Burning sensations
  • Shock-like sensations
  • Inability to grasp
  • Dropping things

Although you can feel symptoms anywhere along the arm, wrist, and fingers, you may have carpal tunnel syndrome if you feel symptoms in your:

  • Thumb
  • Index finger
  • Middle finger
  • Ring finger

As soon as you notice symptoms, stretch your hand, wrist, and fingers. Stop repetitive motions, if possible. If your symptoms persist, you may need a brace to support your wrist, and anti-inflammatory medications to relieve swelling and pain. 

Carpal tunnel syndrome tends to worsen with time if you don’t treat it. To avoid permanent nerve damage and dysfunction in your hand, wrist, and fingers, Dr. Fitzmaurice may recommend minimally invasive EndoTech® surgery that alleviates pressure on the median nerve.

Cubital tunnel syndrome’s no joke

Cubital tunnel syndrome is caused when your ulnar nerve is trapped and compressed in the cubital tunnel that protects the nerve and other tissues in your elbow joint. The ulnar nerve is the nerve in your elbow that gave rise to the term “funny bone” because when you accidentally hit your elbow joint, the nerve sends out “funny” sensations, like tingling and pain.

If your ulnar nerve gets compressed, irritated, and inflamed, though, those sensations of pain and tingly are far from funny. You can irritate and compress your ulnar nerve by engaging in repetitive activities involving your arm, such as:

  • Swinging a racquet or club
  • Playing an instrument
  • Driving
  • Reading a book
  • Anything that requires a bent elbow

As with carpal tunnel syndrome, you can also develop cubital tunnel syndrome after a traumatic accident or as a consequence of aging.

Cubital tunnel syndrome causes symptoms that are similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, which is why Dr. Fitzmaurice recommends getting an evaluation and diagnosis. If you have cubital tunnel syndrome, you may experience sensations in your arm and fingers, such as:

  • Pins and needles sensations
  • Pain
  • Shooting pain down the arm
  • Numbness
  • Inability to grasp an object

You’re more likely to have cubital tunnel syndrome if you have symptoms in your:

  • Forearm
  • Ring finger
  • Little finger

Cubital tunnel syndrome rarely causes symptoms in the elbow itself, which is why you might confuse it for carpal tunnel syndrome without an accurate diagnosis. If you have the symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome, stop the repetitive motions if possible and rest your arm and hand. If your symptoms persist, contact us for an evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment.

Dr. Fitzmaurice may recommend a brace to stabilize your elbow and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications to alleviate swelling and pain. As with carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome gets worse without treatment. Eventually, you could permanently damage your ulnar nerve and cause muscle wasting in your hand and fingers. 

Getting a diagnosis and treatment

If you have pain, numbness, or tingling anywhere along your arm, wrist, hand, or fingers, Dr. Fitzmaurice first conducts a detailed examination and takes imaging studies to determine whether you have carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, or both. To prevent further damage to your median or ulnar nerves, he may recommend:

  • Stretching exercises
  • Physical therapy for strengthening
  • Stem-cell therapy to rejuvenate tendons, ligaments, and nerves
  • Corticosteroids to alleviate swelling
  • Wrist or elbow splints
  • EndoTech carpal tunnel surgery
  • EndoTech cubital tunnel surgery

Dr. Fitzmaurice is a leader in developing and instituting cutting-edge therapies to repair damaged nerves and other tissues. He innovated a NeuroRejuvenation process that uses autologous (i.e., self-donated) stem cells to heal damaged tissues and nerves. He also developed the minimally invasive, EndoTech surgeries that release ligaments that cause nerve compression. EndoTech is far less invasive and has a faster recovery time than traditional surgery.
If you have symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome or cubital tunnel syndrome, contact our Scottsdale, Arizona office for a consultation with Dr. Fitzmaurice today.

Fitzmaurice Hand Institute
8841 E Bell Rd #201
Scottsdale, AZ 85260