Ulnar Nerve Injury: Overview and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Susan W. Lee, DO
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An ulnar nerve injury occurs when the ulnar nerve becomes damaged or compressed. You may experience pain near your elbow, as well as tingling, numbness, or weakness along your forearm and in your hand. Your ulnar nerve is close to the skin at your elbow, which means it can be easy to knock or damage. Compression at the elbow can result in ulnar nerve conditions such as cubital tunnel syndrome.

If you receive a cut to your forearm, this can also cause injury to the ulnar nerve. As your ulnar nerve is responsible for hand movement, this may cause weakness and a clawing motion in the hand.

Read on to find out more about injuries to the ulnar nerve, as well as information about treatments and conditions.

Quick facts about the ulnar nerve

  • The ulnar nerve runs from your shoulder down to your hand.
  • It is responsible for the movement of the ring and little fingers.
  • It is close to your skin at the elbow, making it easy to bump.
  • When you hit your “funny bone,” you are actually hitting your ulnar nerve.

What is the ulnar nerve?

A person is holding a tennis racquet.
Pati Gagarin/Stocksy

The ulnar nerve is one of the three main nerves in the forearm. It runs from the shoulder to the hand.

The ulnar nerve is responsible for carrying signals between the hand and the brain, enabling motion and feeling in the hand and forearm. An injury to the ulnar nerve can damage this communication and thus limit motion and feeling in the hand and forearm.

If you have an ulnar nerve injury, you will most likely experience symptoms in your ring finger and little finger.

Vs. median nerve

Like the ulnar nerve, the median nerve runs down your upper arm and forearm to your hand.

The median nerve is responsible for the movement of the thumb and first two fingers on your hand, whereas the ulnar nerve is responsible for the movement of the ring and little fingers.

How do you treat an ulnar nerve injury?

If you experience an ulnar nerve injury, it is important to treat it properly to ensure that it heals correctly. Depending on the type and severity of the injury, you may be able to treat it without surgery.

Around 90% of people with mild symptoms respond well to noninvasive treatments, or home remedies. This compares to only 38% of people with moderate symptoms who respond well to nonsurgical ulnar nerve treatments.

Ulnar nerve injury treatments can include the following:

Over-the-counter medication

If you experience a compressed ulnar nerve, over-the-counter pain relievers can help to alleviate pain and inflammation. They may also help to prevent the symptoms from worsening.

Splinting your arm

Wearing an arm splint or brace can help prevent further injury while your arm heals. Your doctor will be able to advise on the best type of brace for your specific injury, as well as whether you could benefit from wearing the brace at night.

Hand therapy

Hand therapy helps strengthen your hand, forearm, and elbow. Your doctor may refer you to a physiotherapist, who will help you with the exercises before you are ready to do them at home on your own.

Using an elbow pad

If you cannot avoid leaning on your elbow, try to place an elbow pad underneath it. This will help to cushion it and relieve pressure.

Contact your doctor to discuss your injury. They will be able to advise on the best type of treatment for you.

Do I need surgery for an ulnar nerve injury?

Although ulnar nerve injury can sometimes heal on its own if you give the injury time to rest, some injuries may require surgery. The type of surgery required will depend on the location of the injury.

Cubital tunnel release surgery

Cubital tunnel release surgery relieves pressure on the ulnar nerve as it goes behind the elbow. This may be suitable if the nerve is mildly compressed. A surgeon will typically perform this while you are under regional anesthesia, cutting the ulnar nerve to relieve pressure.

Recovery time for cubital tunnel release surgery is around 2–3 weeks, during which time you will need to wear a padded bandage or soft splint. Pain following the procedure should subside after a few months.

Ulnar nerve anterior transposition surgery

During ulnar nerve anterior transposition surgery, a surgeon will move the ulnar nerve to be in front of the medial epicondyle, which is the bony ridge inside the elbow. This is typically done if there is severe compression or if the ulnar nerve has moved on its own.

Your surgeon will perform this while you are under regional anesthetic. Pain and numbness should reduce quickly after the procedure, but you will need to wear a brace for several weeks.

What are the symptoms of an ulnar nerve injury?

You may experience different ulnar nerve injury symptoms depending on where the injury has occurred. You might experience pain in the elbow or numbness in the fingers.

Symptoms of an ulnar nerve injury can include:

  • elbow pain
  • numbness in the ring or little finger
  • tingling in the ring or little finger
  • hand weakness
  • decreased grip strength
  • tingling in the hand
  • clawing of the ring or little finger
  • loss of finger dexterity
  • increased finger sensitivity to the cold
  • atrophy of the hand muscles

Symptoms will usually be mild to begin with and then gradually progress as the injury worsens over time. However, if ulnar nerve injury occurs due to trauma, or sudden impact, symptoms might be severe right away.

What are the types of ulnar nerve injury?

There are different types of ulnar nerve injury, depending on where and how the injury occurred.

The types of ulnar nerve injuries include:

Contact your doctor if you have pain around the forearm or elbow, or hand and finger weakness. You may be experiencing an ulnar nerve injury.

Find out more information about ulnar nerve entrapment.

What causes an ulnar nerve injury?

An ulnar nerve injury can happen for a number of reasons, many of which are part of our daily routine. As such, virtually anyone can experience an ulnar nerve injury.

Possible everyday causes of ulnar nerve injury include:

  • playing sports that involve repetitive throwing or swinging, such as tennis or golf
  • driving long distances with your elbow resting on the car window
  • working in an office with your elbows on the desk for hours at a time
  • previously experiencing an elbow fracture or damage to the elbow
  • trauma to the elbow by direct contact with a surface or object

Ulnar nerve injury can also be a symptom of an underlying condition. These conditions can include:

Is it possible to prevent an ulnar nerve injury?

You can take preventive steps to reduce the risk of an ulnar nerve injury, such as ulnar nerve compression.

Steps to prevent an ulnar nerve injury can include:

  • avoiding activities or sports that involve throwing or swinging
  • avoiding leaning on your elbows
  • keeping your arms straight while resting

How is an ulnar nerve injury diagnosed?

To diagnose an ulnar nerve injury, your doctor will conduct a physical exam of the arm, wrist, and hand. They will test your motor and sensory performance, as well as identify the location of the injury.

Your doctor may also arrange for additional tests. These can include:

Once your doctor has diagnosed the ulnar nerve injury, they will be able to recommend the best treatment for you. This might include at-home treatments such as anti-inflammatory medication. Surgery may be necessary in some cases.

Are there any complications of an ulnar nerve injury?

If you frequently experience ulnar nerve injuries, they may continue to worsen over time until the nerve is no longer able to function properly. This can lead to permanent disability.

Contact a doctor if you experience symptoms of an ulnar nerve injury. They will be able to arrange for tests to determine how severe the injury is and whether surgery is necessary.

Frequently asked questions

Other questions people frequently ask about ulnar nerve injuries include:

What happens if an ulnar nerve is damaged?

When an ulnar nerve becomes damaged, it can no longer properly send signals from the hand to the brain, and vice versa. This means that your hand, as well as some of your fingers, may not move properly. This can be painful, or you can feel a numbness or tingling sensation.

Can a damaged ulnar nerve heal?

It is possible for a damaged ulnar nerve to heal. If your injury is only mild, you may be able to heal it with OTC medications and resting your arm. In some cases, you may require surgery.

Is ulnar nerve damage permanent?

Ulnar nerve damage is generally not permanent. However, if you frequently experience ulnar nerve damage, or if you do not treat an injured ulnar nerve, it may become permanently damaged.

How long does it take for an ulnar nerve to heal?

If you wear a supportive brace and rest your arm as much as possible, a mild ulnar nerve injury may heal on its own within a few weeks. If surgery is necessary, recovery time can range from a few weeks to a few months.


An ulnar nerve injury can occur at the elbow, along the forearm, or at the wrist. The nerve can become trapped or compressed, resulting in pain, numbness, and tingling.

If you experience an ulnar nerve injury, it can prevent your hand and some fingers from functioning properly. This can occur due to trauma to the elbow, as a result of daily activities, or as a symptom of a different condition.

Contact your doctor if you experience symptoms of an ulnar nerve injury. This will be able to conduct tests and advise on the best type of treatment for you.

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Medical Reviewer: Susan W. Lee, DO
Last Review Date: 2022 May 13
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