The main nerve bundle coming out of the neck (the brachial plexus), branches into three nerves that run down the arm and into the hand—the radial, ulnar, and median nerves. The median nerve runs along the inside of the arm and affects the palm side of the thumb, index, middle, and the inside of the ring finger. Commonly referred to as the “funny bone” when aggravated, the ulnar nerve runs along the inside of the elbow and affects the outside of the ring finger and little finger. Trauma to the ulnar nerve (cubital tunnel syndrome) can be mistaken for trauma to the median nerve (carpal tunnel syndrome), due to their proximity and shared symptoms.
Risk factors and symptoms
All nerves and tissue need the blood to flow smoothly for nourishment. When the blood cannot nourish tissue, fatigue, discomfort, pain, and loss of function can result. Aggravation to the ulnar nerve results in tingling and numbness in the ring and little finger and can be the result of:
- Impingement – Pressure on the nerve is often caused by resting the elbow on a desk surface, chair armrest, or on a vehicle’s center console or open window sill.
- Overstretching – The ulnar nerve is stretched by 8-15% whenever the elbow is bent. The risk factor is slight when the keyboard position is too high and extreme when holding a telephone to the ear, or when sleeping in the fetal position with hands curled up under the head.
Stop the tingling
- Fatigue is an early warning sign. Listen to your body. When you feel fatigued, change postures and stretch.
- While nerves are designed to stretch, so are rubber bands; ever had one snap on you? Holding a telephone (even a smart phone) up to the ear for long periods of time will put your arm to sleep (the pain comes later). Switch hands often if on a long call, or even better, use a hands-free device.
- Adjust your workstation so that elbows are not bent at an angle less than 90º. Ideally, open up the elbow angle to 120º.
- Avoid leaning on the elbows either at work or in the car. This includes armrests or the car’s window sill. When resting on your elbows, make sure the surface is padded.
- Some people have found that wearing a wrist splint during sleep helps to straighten out the wrist and elbow joint. Prior to considering this remedy, always consult your treating health care provider.
For more information on the effects technology issues have on the body, see Tech-Related Tension Neck ERGOMATTERS®.