In this first blog, I’m sharing my story about Cubital Tunnel Syndrome so that I can hopefully provide some helpful hints and methods on relieving pain for those suffering the same injury. When I was injured, I had a difficult time finding information on how to effectively relieve pain and reduce the irritation other than having surgery, which I absolutely did not want to do. I hope that this blog can provide some hope for those suffering right now!
(Image from https://esportshealthcare.com/)Symptoms
It all began in December of 2018, when I flew from NYC to Korea for a business trip. On the plane ride there, I fell asleep on the economy seat, holding my head with a bent left elbow, leaning against the window. When I woke up a few hours later, I noticed that my left pinky felt numb. Thinking that it would go away in a few minutes, I didn’t spend much time worrying about it as I disembarked the plane. As I traveled from Korea to Japan a few days later, I noticed that the pinky was still numb, but because it didn’t hurt, I just shrugged it off. Only later did I know that this was an early sign of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, which is an irritation, pressure, or stretching of an ulnar nerve, also known as the “funny bone” nerve.
By the time I came back home to NY a few weeks later, the condition had worsened. I still clearly remember the day I woke up with an immense pain in my left arm where it felt like electric currents were shooting up and down, and I could no longer control my fingers as my hand shook uncontrollably. Although I’ve always thought that I had pretty high pain tolerance (I’ve had an experience in the past where I just sat and suffered through a sudden, mysterious throbbing pain in my lower back for a few days instead of going to the ER simply out of laziness), I could no longer bear the pain and ran to the closest medical clinic that was open 24/7.
Without taking any tests, the doctor at the ER concluded that it was Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which is a common condition that causes pain and numbness in the hand and arm that occurs from an irritated median nerve, often happening to those that type a lot for work. She provided me with a wrist bracelet and told me not to use the hand for a few days. Relieved that there was a diagnosis, I followed directions and rested my hand.
However, the condition only became worse as the days progressed. There were days that I cried simply out of pain, and because my job required a lot of typing, and I was very stressed and angry at myself for not being able to get my job done efficiently and properly.
By this time, I could no longer straighten my left arm, grip, lift, or control my fingers, and it basically became a painful, useless arm. I had to keep my elbow bent at about 50 degree angle at all times as that was the only position that didn’t cause a shooting pain.
From googling online, I realized that what I had was Cubital, not Carpal, Tunnel Syndrome, and that I was paying attention to the wrong spot on my arm. I only realized this because the initial symptom of the syndrome was a numb pinky, which is a common symptom for irritated ulnar nerves (For Carpal, the common symptoms are numbness primarily in the thumb and index, middle, and ring fingers, but not pinkies).
I visited a neurologist to confirm my self-diagnosis, and after testing my ulnar nerve by shooting electric shocks up my left arm (a painful test called nerve conduction velocity test, or NCV), she confirmed that there was a significant irritation to the nerve. I got an MRI on my arm (which was the most painful experience ever, as I had to stretch my arm straight with force for 30 min when it was painful enough to even slightly move it) to make sure that there was no damage to the elbow causing the irritation. She suggested that I take physical therapy and also gave me prescriptions for a couple of different medications (I will update this info when I find my bottles).
(NCV - image from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/)Physical Therapies
The physical therapy did not work out for me. I don’t blame the therapists - I think they were well educated and knew what they were doing, but every time I finished a session, I was experiencing more pain that lasted for a couple of days. I gave up on physical therapy, but instead signed up for an ultrasound therapy treatment where my therapist would rub the transducer head on my elbow for about 20 minutes. This treatment was effective in relieving some pain for a day or two, but I didn’t feel that it was helping me long-term, and it was also becoming too expensive to continue since my insurance didn’t cover the treatment.Topical Pain Reliever
I’ve tested all kinds of pain-relieving creams, and the only thing I found helpful was a cream called Penetrex Pain Relief Therapy. It was affordable and the relief lasted for at least a few hours every time I applied it to my elbow. This not only helped with the pain, but it also helped with the high stress level I was experiencing at that time (learn more about my background here). I strongly believe that any pain or condition can be worsened with stress, and I felt that the temporary relief from pain and stress was definitely helping my body heal my nerve back. I applied this cream every day and night, and my pain began to reduce over time.Herbal Supplement
I also began taking turmeric pills (with black pepper) by Garden of Life mykind Organic Extra Strength Tumeric and St. John’s Wort tinctures as recommended by an herbalist friend, and this actually helped a lot. Turmeric has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, and St. John’s Wort is used for nerve pain, along with anxiety and tensions. I took the supplements once a day every morning, and it relieved the pain enough that I sometimes forget that I was injured!
About a year and a half later, I was able to do most tasks with my arm without a problem. Because I avoided using my arm for such a long time, it had definitely weakened, so I began my own physical therapy at home. I followed the exercises shown in the attached image, and my arm became gradually stronger.
(Images from https://www.ouh.nhs.uk/)Almost There
Today, about two years since I first injured my left arm, I am finally able to do downward dog and cobra positions while practicing yoga. It’s still not as strong as my right arm, but I can feel that it’s in the process of healing. It can still be painful on a stressful day or after a long day of typing, but as long as I rest for some time afterwards, it is back to normal.
If you’re reading this because you are also experiencing Cubital Tunnel Syndrome pain, I hope that this blog was helpful. Please let me know if you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer!