How is it diagnosed?
Someone would complain of the symptoms, and there would be a sensitivity if one pressed or tapped over the ulnar nerve at the elbow.
How is it caused? Is there actually a "tunnel" in your elbow?
The ulnar nerve passes through a tunnel right at your elbow. You can feel the bump on the inside of your elbow. Right adjacent to that is called the cubital tunnel.
How is it different from carpal tunnel syndrome?
It's the same in the sense that it's pressure on the nerve. The anatomy is a little different, but the nerve is being pressed. The pain and tingling is the nerve's way of telling you it's uncomfortable.
Are cell phones to blame for cubital tunnel syndrome?
It's not actually caused by anything. There are hundreds of millions of people who talk on cell phones who are never symptomatic. Someone who gets this has a predisposition to have the problem. Some people are born with a little extra muscle that not everyone has, or they're born with a narrower cubital tunnel.
The use of the cell phone doesn't cause this problem. A person with a predisposition to this problem may become symptomatic when the elbow is flexed beyond 90 degrees. That can happen at night when we sleep or [are] performing a task like talking on the cell phone. Since we all tend to sleep in the fetal position, to say sleeping causes it, that's absurd.
How is it treated or prevented?
You could use a hands-free device or an earphone. In fact, that's the first treatment that we recommend to patients.
If the symptoms persist, despite keeping the elbow straighter—where someone is really experiencing persistent numbness or tingling—the nerve will suffer more permanent damage [if ignored]. So occasional numbness is benign, but persistent tingling and numbness will lead to more permanent changes.
If they're still symptomatic, then there is a surgical procedure to alleviate the problem: Make a slit and open the tunnel so the nerve has more breathing space.
Have you ever seen or treated patients with this syndrome?
I'm sitting here talking to you, and my little finger is numb. I have the condition. It's pretty common.