Elbow pain and tingling fingers can make daily tasks difficult and uncomfortable. The elbow joint consists of bone, cartilage, ligaments and tendons. Nerves that supply sensation to the hand cross the elbow joint. Short- or long-term injury to any of the elbow structures can cause local pain and possibly finger tingling due to involvement of nearby nerves. Less commonly, elbow pain and tingling fingers can be caused by conditions in the neck and shoulder.
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital tunnel syndrome refers to entrapment, or compression, of the ulnar nerve at the elbow. The ulnar nerve is one of 3 large nerves that travel through the arm. It crosses the inner side of the elbow joint between the bones of the upper and lower arm. The ulnar nerve enables sensation in the little finger and the outer half of the ring finger, and controls many of the small muscles of the hand. Cubital tunnel syndrome most often occurs in people who frequently flex the elbows or lean on them, due to habit, hobbies or occupation. Common symptoms associated with cubital tunnel syndrome include:
-- tingling, pins-and-needles or a burning sensation in the ring and little fingers, especially when the elbow is bent
-- inner elbow pain and tenderness
-- weakness of the affected hand
Other Causes of Ulnar Neuropathy at the Elbow
Cubital tunnel syndrome is one type of ulnar neuropathy at the elbow -- neuropathy describing nerve damage and abnormal function. Other circumstances and conditions can also compromise the integrity of the ulnar nerve at the elbow, causing pain and tingling in the fingers. Examples include:
-- elbow trauma, such as a fracture, dislocation or a soft tissue bruise with swelling
-- elbow deformity due to arthritis or bone spurs
Seniors, smokers, people with diabetes, and those who are underweight and have little fat protecting the joint have an increased risk of developing ulnar neuropathy at the elbow.
Nerves that carry motor and sensory messages to and from the arms emerge from the spinal cord via spaces between the spinal bones of the neck, called the cervical vertebrae. Cervical radiculopathy describes abnormal function of nerves emerging from the cervical spine, which can sometimes cause elbow pain and tingling fingers. Cervical spine nerves can be compressed by bulging or herniated intervertebral discs -- cushions between the bones of the spine -- or bone spurs. This can lead to pain in the distribution of the affected nerve, often around the elbow, and tingling in certain fingers. Numbness and muscle weakness are also possible symptoms of this condition. Problems in the lowest of the cervical vertebrae are usually to blame for elbow and hand symptoms.
Thoracic Outlet Compression Syndrome
Thoracic outlet compression syndrome describes abnormal pressure on the brachial plexus -- an array of nerves and blood vessels -- as these structures travel through a narrow outlet leading from the base of the neck through the underarm and into the arm. This syndrome may cause elbow and forearm pain or discomfort and tingling fingers, along with similar symptoms higher in the arm. There are 3 types of thoracic outlet syndrome, each with its own set of symptoms: neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome, vascular thoracic outlet syndrome and nonspecific thoracic outlet syndrome. Thoracic outlet syndrome is more common in women than men, and usually manifests in people between the ages of 20 and 50.
Warnings and Precautions
Elbow pain and abnormal finger sensations, including tingling, can come and go with many of the common underlying causes of these symptoms. However, it's important not to ignore these symptoms, even if they are intermittent. Conditions that cause these symptoms often progress over time. See your doctor if you experience elbow pain and finger tingling or other sensory abnormalities in one or both of your hands. Early diagnosis and treatment offers the best opportunity for resolution of your symptoms.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.