Common nerve compression syndromes include carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, and radial tunnel syndrome. Compression of nerves often causes paresthesias; these paresthesias can often be reproduced by tapping the compressed nerve, usually with the examiner's fingertip (Tinel's sign). Suspected nerve compression can be confirmed by testing nerve conduction velocity and distal latencies, which accurately measure motor and sensory nerve conduction. Initial treatment is usually conservative, but surgical decompression may be necessary if conservative measures fail or if there are significant motor or sensory deficits.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome is compression of the median nerve as it passes through the carpal tunnel in the wrist. Symptoms include pain and paresthesias in the median nerve distribution. Diagnosis is suggested by symptoms and signs and is confirmed by nerve conduction velocity testing. Treatments include ergonomic improvements, analgesia, splinting, and sometimes corticosteroid injection or surgery.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is very common and most often occurs in women aged 30 to 50. Risk factors include RA or other wrist arthritis (sometimes the presenting manifestation), diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, acromegaly, amyloidosis, hemodialysis, and pregnancy-induced edema in the carpal tunnel. Activities or jobs that require repetitive flexion and extension of the wrist may contribute, but rarely. Most cases are idiopathic.
Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms include pain of the hand and wrist associated with tingling and numbness, classically distributed along the median nerve (the palmar side of the thumb, the index and middle fingers, and the radial half of the ring finger) but possibly involving the entire hand. Typically, the patient wakes at night with burning or aching pain and with numbness and tingling and shakes the hand to obtain relief and restore sensation. Thenar atrophy and weakness of thumb opposition and abduction may develop late.
The diagnosis is strongly suggested by Tinel's sign, in which median nerve paresthesias are reproduced by tapping at the volar surface of the wrist over the site of the median nerve in the carpal tunnel. Reproduction of tingling with wrist flexion (Phalen's sign) is also suggestive. However, clinical differentiation from other types of peripheral neuropathy may sometimes be difficult. If symptoms are severe or the diagnosis is uncertain, nerve conduction testing should be done on the affected arm for diagnosis and to exclude a more proximal neuropathy.
Changing the position of computer keyboards and making other ergonomic corrections may occasionally provide relief. Otherwise, treatment includes wearing a lightweight neutral wrist splint (see Fig. 4: Hand Disorders: Neutral wrist splint.), especially at night, and taking mild analgesics (eg, acetaminophen, NSAIDs). If these measures do not control symptoms, a mixture of an anesthetic and a corticosteroid and an anesthetic (eg, 1.5 mL of a 4-mg/mL dexamethasone solution mixed with 1.5 mL of 1% lidocaine) should be injected into the carpal tunnel at a site just ulnar to the palmaris longus tendon and proximal to the distal crease at the wrist. If bothersome symptoms persist or recur or if hand weakness and thenar wasting develop, the carpal tunnel can be surgically decompressed by using an open or endoscopic technique.
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital tunnel syndrome is compression or traction of the ulnar nerve at the elbow.
The ulnar nerve is commonly irritated at the elbow or, rarely, the wrist. Cubital tunnel syndrome is most often caused by leaning on the elbow or by prolonged and excessive elbow flexion. It is less common than carpal tunnel syndrome. Baseball pitching (particularly sliders), which can injure the medial elbow ligaments, confers risk.
Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms include numbness and paresthesia along the ulnar nerve distribution (in the ring and little fingers and the ulnar aspect of the hand) and elbow pain. In advanced stages, weakness of the intrinsic muscles of the hand and the flexors of the ring and little fingers may develop. Weakness interferes with pinch between the thumb and index finger and with hand grip.
Diagnosis is often possible clinically. However, if clinical diagnosis is equivocal and when surgery is being considered, nerve conduction studies are done. Cubital tunnel syndrome is differentiated from ulnar nerve entrapment at the wrist (in Guyon's canal) by the presence of sensory deficits (on sensory testing or with Tinel's sign) over the ulnar dorsal hand and by the presence of ulnar nerve deficits proximal to the wrist on muscle testing or nerve conduction velocity testing.
Treatment involves splinting at night, with the elbow extended at 45°, and use of an elbow pad during the day. Surgical decompression can help if conservative treatment fails.
Radial Tunnel Syndrome
(Posterior Interosseous Nerve Syndrome)
Radial tunnel syndrome is compression of the radial nerve in the proximal forearm.
Compression at the elbow can result from trauma, ganglia, lipomas, bone tumors, or radiocapitellar (elbow) synovitis.
Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms include lancinating pain in the dorsum of the forearm and lateral elbow. Pain is precipitated by attempted extension of the wrist and fingers and forearm supination. Sensory loss is rare because the radial nerve is principally a motor nerve at this level. This disorder is sometimes confused with backhand tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis). When weakness of the extensor muscles is the primary finding, the condition is referred to as posterior interosseus nerve palsy.
Lateral epicondylitis can cause similar tenderness around the lateral epicondyle but does not cause Tinel's sign or tenderness along the course of the radial nerve.
Splinting allows avoidance of the forceful or repeated motion of supination or wrist dorsiflexion, reducing pressure on the nerve. If wristdrop or weakened digital extension develops, or conservative treatment fails to provide relief after 3 mo, surgical decompression may be needed.
Last full review/revision March 2008 by David R. Steinberg, MD