Cubital Tunnel or Carpal Tunnel: Which Do I Have?

Most people have heard of carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful condition that happens in your wrists and hands. Far fewer people have heard of cubital tunnel syndrome, yet this less-common syndrome can cause many of the same symptoms — but with a couple of major differences.

With offices in Dallas, Plano, Keller, Weatherford, and Fort Worth, Texas, our team at Texas Orthopaedic Associates uses a battery of tests to diagnose hand pain, tailoring treatment plans to the underlying cause and factors unique to every patient. If you have hand pain, here’s how to tell if carpal tunnel syndrome or cubital tunnel syndrome could be to blame.

“Tunnel” syndromes: the basics

In both cubital tunnel syndrome and carpal tunnel syndrome, the word “tunnel” refers to a confined space formed by ligaments, tendons, or other structures. In your wrists, these tunnels form covered “pathways” for nerves that provide sensation and muscle function in your hands.

Carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome happen when these tunnels become narrower than usual, compressing or “pinching” the nerves they contain. Most often, this type of compression is related to a traumatic injury or an underlying medical problem, like:

  • Acute or chronic inflammation
  • Osteoarthritis
  • An autoimmune disorder, like rheumatoid arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Fluid retention
  • Thyroid disease

Certain medications can also increase the risk of one of these tunnel syndromes, including some drugs used to treat cancer, osteoporosis, and clotting disorders.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a relatively common cause of hand pain among people who do a lot of repetitive activities with their hands, including typing and assembly line work. Over time, repeated hand movements increase inflammation inside and around the tunnel, pressing on nerves and causing chronic symptoms.

Carpal tunnel vs. cubital tunnel: how to tell the difference

Both carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome cause the same types of symptoms in the hands, like:

  • Pain
  • Burning
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness
  • Loss of coordination

The primary differences between the two conditions are where the symptoms occur and which nerves are involved.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when the median nerve is compressed or irritated. The median nerve is one of the major nerves in your arm, traveling along the entire length of the arm.

The median nerve provides sensation and controls many movements in your thumb and first two fingers, along with that area of your palm. If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, you’ll have symptoms in these areas of your hand.

Cubital tunnel syndrome

Cubital tunnel syndrome involves another major arm nerve called the ulnar nerve. This is the nerve that feels “funny” when you hit your elbow (your “funny bone”). While cubital tunnel syndrome causes discomfort in your hand, it’s also often associated with elbow pain and activities that put a lot of pressure or strain on the elbow joint.

After passing your elbow, the ulnar nerve serves your little finger and ring finger, along with the outside edge of your hand. In cubital tunnel syndrome, these are the areas affected by pain, numbness, and other symptoms — the “opposite side” of the hand that’s involved in carpal tunnel syndrome.

Both syndromes need prompt medical care

Both syndromes affect your hands, but there’s something else they have in common: If they’re not promptly treated, you can wind up with permanent loss of movement and sensation in your hand and fingers, along with disfigurement of the hand.

Fortunately, both carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome can be successfully treated, either conservatively or, less often, with surgery to relieve nerve compression. To learn how our team can relieve your hand pain symptoms, book an appointment online or over the phone with our team at Texas Orthopaedic Associates.