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HealthInfo Canterbury

Living with ulnar nerve compression

If your ulnar nerve compression is quite mild, you are unlikely to need surgery. Instead, treatment will involve changing the way you do things and getting help from health professionals such as your GP and a hand therapist. This is often called conservative treatment.

What can I do about ulnar nerve compression?

Avoid, or cut down on activities that make it worse.

If your ulnar nerve is compressed at your elbow, avoid leaning on your bent elbow, or any activities that involve keeping your elbow bent (such as holding a phone to your ear or folding your arms). Also avoid anything that makes you repetitively bend and straighten your arm.

Putting a soft foam elbow pad over your elbow crease may help you to avoid absent-mindedly bending and leaning on your elbow.

Keeping your arms straight while sleeping is likely to make a big difference, as most people sleep with their elbows bent. You could try bandaging a small towel around your arm to stop you from bending it while you are asleep.

If your ulnar nerve is compressed at your wrist you could consider wearing padded gloves when doing any activity that involves gripping or putting pressure on your hands. You could also try padding your bicycle handlebars.

Sometimes repetitive heavy tasks at work cause ulnar nerve compression at your wrist, so you might need to change the way you do things. If your symptoms are very disabling, or continue for a long time, you may have to consider changing your job.

Who can help?

Your GP

Your GP will be able to treat and help you manage any underlying conditions that may be making your ulnar nerve compression worse. These include several conditions (such as fluid retention, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis), and connective tissue diseases (such as Sjögren's syndrome and lupus).

They can also provide appropriate pain relief.

If you need to find a GP, you can search on this map.

A hand therapist

If your ulnar nerve is compressed at the elbow a hand therapist can provide you with a properly fitted elbow splint, which will help you to keep your elbow straight. A splint should comfortably stop you from fully bending your elbow, instead keeping it slightly bent. Wearing a splint for up to three months, at night and as often as possible during the day, can often stop your symptoms.

A hand therapist can also help you to identify what activities make your symptoms worse, and how to change the way you do them.

Seeing a hand therapist is likely to make a real difference if you have ulnar nerve compression, but publicly funded hand therapy is available only to hospital patients, so you will have to pay for treatment. ACC may help with the cost of treatment if an injury caused ulnar nerve compression. You can find a private hand therapist on the Association of Hand Therapists website.

Plastic surgeon or orthopaedic surgeon

If surgery is likely to help, your GP can refer you to the Christchurch Hospital plastic surgery or orthopaedic surgery departments.

Or you could choose to pay to see a private plastic surgeon, private orthopaedic surgeon, or private neurosurgeon.

On the next page: Surgery for ulnar nerve compression

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by clinical directors, Orthopaedics Department and Plastics Department, Canterbury DHB. Page created May 2017. Last updated June 2019.


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Review key: HIWAH-240323