Ulnar Neuritus, My Story

Since I have been recently having problems again with my hand, I decided to write a post about my condition in the hopes that it may help others who have suffered with similar issues.

What Is Ulnar Neuritus?

To quote the FreeMD website: “A person with ulnar neuritis has inflammation of the ulnar nerve in the arm, which results in hand numbness or hand weakness. Ulnar neuritis is usually caused by activities that place constant pressure against the ulnar nerve at the elbow or wrist. Ulnar neuritis may also be caused by repetitive motion at the elbow or wrist.”

For me, it started with numbness and tingling in the ring and little finger of my right hand. It then progressed to aching, stiffness, and occasional sharp shooting pains in the fingers and the back edge of my wrist and forearm, and the funny bone part of the elbow.

What Caused It?

I can only speak about my own situation. My hand surgeon said that my Ulnar nerve was most likely a little shorter than the average person and therefore prone to irritation when compressed in any way. Therefore I was predisposed to this problem and it only took something to traumatize my arm to trigger it.

In my case, I believe there were a few things that triggered it. First, I remember trying to split about a cord of firewood around six years ago. Splitting wood is generally not a big deal, but this was Maple which is a very hard wood. I remember my wrist getting hurt after several shock waves due to axe recoil (when the axe doesn’t get through the wood and the force recoils back up through the arm).

Then there was the deck project about 3 1/2 years ago. I used a pick axe to pull out Rhodies and ferns to make way for the deck and concrete slab where we put our hot tub. My hand and wrist hurt so bad, I had to stop working on it and had to sit out the slab pour which required a lot of trips with wheelbarrows filled with concrete. I am grateful for all my friends who helped that day.

Then a year and a half ago, I power sprayed and re-stained my deck. Instead of the pain and tingling subsiding after several days, they persisted for the better part of a year!

What Made it Worse

What was different about this last flareup was that I was in the middle of an intense project at work requiring me to spend many hours on the computer. Instead of getting enough rest for my hand to recover, it just made things worse. What started out as some numbness and tingling progressed eventually to shooting pains every time I pressed the Shift key with my pinky. I started calling in sick when it was too painful to use a computer. I eventually took a 5 1/2 month leave of absence, during which time I had regular occupational therapy and massage, went to two hand surgeons, and eventually got an MRI which confirmed I had compression in the Cubital Tunnel (where the Ulnar nerve passes behind elbow).

There were a few ergonomic issues that exacerbated the problem.

  • Repetitive computer keyboard and mouse work. This involves mostly fine motor skills with little movement of the hand, other than moving a mouse, which limits the wrist movement from side to side.
  • The angle of the hand to the keyboard, where the wrist is not straight but kept at an angle for long periods of time.
  • Resting the elbows on an arm rest while working. Also, having the desk too high. The elbows need to float free and at an angle greater than 90° to keep pressure off the nerve at the elbow.
  • Sleeping with my elbow flexed.

What Made it Better

There were only three things that worked for me. Rest, therapy, and ergonomic adjustment. I wore a tennis elbow brace when I went to bed, got rid of arm rests on chairs, got focused massage on the hand, arm, shoulder and neck. In fact, my massage therapist is convinced that part of the nerve compression is occurring in the neck and pectoral minor muscle, where the nerve passes under. In severe cases, surgery is required, but I was unwilling to consider this once I learned the risk of permanent nerve damage and that the surgery has only a 60% success rate.

Overall, it was rest that got me over the worst of it. I eventually returned to work this past January, but on a doctor’s mandated restriction of 10 hours per week max. This resulted in my eventual displacement and termination from my job since I was not able to fulfill my job requirements. It has only been the past several months where I have been mostly symptom free. Mostly.

Living With Ulnar Neuritus

I still get occasional flareups. This is usually what brings it on: Any prolonged and repetitive gripping activity. Examples include using a shovel, axe, paint brush, roller, broom, power sprayer, grass clippers, pruners, hedge shears, etc. The key here is repetitive. The prolonged gripping engages the muscles around the Ulnar nerve and leads to constant compression. I like to do yard work as it is both relaxing and provides me the satisfaction of actually finishing something. Now I have to be selective with yard work and make sure I don’t do it for very long.

I recently transplanted some bamboo from a friend’s yard to my backyard. Digging up bamboo is difficult since you have to break through dense roots. After attempting this for four hours, I realized that I was not going to be able to complete the work without really messing up my hand again. A few days later, I spent a lot of time on the computer and the following day, numbness, tingling, aching, and occasional shooting pains returned. Out came the elbow brace and I had to desist from all hand activity. After a few days, things got better. I was eventually able to enlist my nephew to complete the job a couple of days ago. He did most of the work and I helped. Nonetheless, I did quite a bit of shovel work and I know that I am going to suffer some consequences, but I was careful, and took care to limit prolonged use, and tried to limit the gripping to my left hand. I seem to be doing okay, but I have to limit my computer use.

I know of others that have had more severe cases and had to get surgery. I consider myself fortunate to have only a moderate case. Nonetheless, it incapacitated me for several months, but I did not suffer the excruciating pain that some people experience. Now that I self-employed, I can rest when needed, and I know what usually triggers it and can take calculated risks. I can’t stop living, I just have to be more careful. The most important thing is to set limits and take lots of breaks.


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One Response to Ulnar Neuritus, My Story

  1. Simone says:

    I think I have this too. My pinky finger is tingling and my hand is weak. I got it from heavy leaning on my crutches (had a leg injury). I am going to do an emg on Friday to find out. I am a tennis player and a runner and I was lifting weights before this. It really brings me down that I can’t do any of those things right now. The hand injury only made it worse.

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