Powerlifts like the bench press put a lot of stress on the joints, tissues and nerves in the arms, and a possible result is a pinched nerve. Overuse on the arms builds up over time, and may eventually cause pain and numbness in the elbow and hands. Neglecting the condition could lead to permanent damage. But with proper treatment, you should safely be able to return to your powerlifting routine.
The Ulnar Pathway
One of three primary nerves in your arm, the ulnar nerve starts under the collarbone and trails down the arm through the cubital tunnel, a bundle of tissue inside the elbow that’s often called the funny bone. The nerve continues into the hand on the side of the palm with your little finger. When the nerve become pinched -- also called nerve entrapment and cubital tunnel syndrome — it can cause pain on the outside of the elbow and numbness and tingling in either the ring finger or little finger or both. If the ulnar nerve is very compressed or compressed for a long period, irreversible muscle wasting in your hand may occur.
How Entrapment Happens
Ulnar nerve entrapment is a frequent complaint in weightlifting. When you bench press, your elbows are bent in flexion, making the ulnar nerve in each arm stretch across the back of the elbow and compress as it’s stretched. Elbow flexion decreases the size of the cubital tunnel and flattens the ulnar nerve in the process. The compression can also be caused or exacerbated by inflammation from overuse.
Time to Rest
Take time off from bench pressing and other arm-flexing strength training until the condition heals. If the pain is in its early stages, take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce swelling around the nerve. Apply ice packs. Elevate the arm and protect it with a compression elbow brace to keep from bending it during the day or while you sleep. As your arm and hand begin to feel better, you can begin physical therapy exercise. Steroid injections aren’t recommended because they may damage the nerve, although in the most serious cases, surgery may be needed. With conservative treatment and rest, the pain and inflammation should disappear within two to four weeks, although more severe cases may last eight weeks and longer.
Your Prevention Options
You can try wrist wraps while you bench press, which restrict wrist flexion and stabilize the elbow during flexion. Exercises to increase the strength of your forearm muscles may also be helpful, even while you’re experiencing pain. For the wrist extensor exercise, lay your arm on a table, with the palm down and hanging over the table edge; raise a 2-pounddumbbell until the back of your hand is level with the table and hold for five seconds. For a wrist flexor exercise, repeat the same movement as with the extensor exercise, but lift the dumbbell in your hand with the palm up. For more recommendations for your particular situation, consult a physical therapist for advice.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Ulnar Nerve Entrapment
- American Family Physician: Evaluation of Overuse Elbow Injuries
- Sports Science Orthopedic Clinic: Ulnar Nerve Entrapment
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Sports Injuries of the Elbow
- Iron Man Magazine: Another Look at Elbow Pain
- Neurology and Trauma; Randolph W. Evans