Can Carpal Tunnel Cause Elbow Pain? Understanding the Connection

Fri, Jun 28, 2024

Can Carpal Tunnel Cause Elbow Pain? Understanding the Connection

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition involving a nerve in the hand that gets compressed in the wrist. This can cause uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating symptoms. Most symptoms are in the hand and fingers, but carpal tunnel elbow pain can also occur as sensations radiate up the arm.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

A man working at a computer has a wrist brace on his right arm.

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve, one of the major nerves controlling the hand, is compressed in the wrist. The carpal tunnel is the narrow passage of the wrist, consisting of small bones and connective tissue.

The median nerve originates in the neck, travels down the arm, goes through the carpal tunnel, and terminates in the hand and fingers. It is the source of sensation in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and part of the ring finger.

The carpal tunnel can narrow for various reasons, squeezing the median nerve. This can cause numbness, tingling, pain, sensations that radiate down the fingers, and weakness in the hand. Symptoms usually come on gradually and can be relieved with a brace or splint, pain medications, changes in activity, and physical therapy. When these no longer help, surgery relieves pressure on the nerve.

Does Carpal Tunnel Cause Elbow Pain?

Most symptoms associated with carpal tunnel syndrome occur in the fingers and thumb. However, the pain caused by the trapped nerve can radiate along the forearm, triggering elbow pain. The pain may even radiate all the way up to the shoulder.

Elbow Pain and Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

While carpal tunnel syndrome can cause elbow pain, it’s important to consider other potential causes. Cubital tunnel syndrome is the entrapment of the ulnar nerve at the elbow. The ulnar nerve is another nerve that runs from the neck down to the hand.

The cubital tunnel is the space at the elbow. Like the carpal tunnel, this space can narrow and compress nerves. Typical symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome include numbness and tingling in the ring finger and little finger, loss of grip strength, and pain on the inside of the elbow.

Elbow pain could be caused by either type of nerve entrapment condition. It’s also possible to have both carpal and cubital tunnel syndromes at the same time.

Diagnosing Elbow Pain

Both carpal and cubital tunnel syndromes require medical care. They usually worsen over time and can become very painful and debilitating. They can also cause nerve damage if not treated. It’s important to see an orthopedist if you have signs of carpal tunnel and elbow pain. They can confirm the diagnosis or determine if another condition is causing the pain.

Diagnosis typically begins with a physical examination and description of symptoms. Your specialist may also perform electrodiagnostic tests to measure activity in the affected nerves.

They can also use ultrasound, X-rays, and MRI to image the wrist and elbow to see if a nerve is being compressed.

How Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treated?

Orthopedists will provide you with treatment options based on the specifics of your condition and symptoms. They usually begin with more conservative, nonsurgical treatments, which for carpal tunnel may include:

  • A brace or splint to support and straighten the wrist
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications to relieve pain and inflammation
  • Physical therapy exercises and lifestyle changes
  • Steroid injections directly into the carpal tunnel to reduce inflammation

When conservative treatments fail to provide relief, your orthopedist will likely recommend carpal tunnel release surgery. During this procedure, the surgeon cuts the transverse carpal ligament, which forms the roof of the space, to relieve pressure on the nerve.

To see what happens during an endoscopic carpal tunnel release, a common, minimally invasive procedure for carpal tunnel syndrome, watch this video by Dr. Kuremsky.

Carpal tunnel release can be performed as an open surgery or as a minimally invasive endoscopic procedure. It is typically an outpatient procedure with minimal risks. Recovery time varies by patient but may take up to a year. Most patients have good outcomes and good symptom relief.

If you have elbow pain and other signs consistent with carpal tunnel syndrome, NCSH orthopedists can help. Learn more about carpal tunnel and possible treatment options from our hand and wrist specialists.

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