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5 Things Cyclists Need To Know About Ulnar Neuropathy

Cycling is an excellent way to stay in shape, but unfortunately, it can also lead to painful nerve entrapment injuries like ulnar neuropathy, also known as cubital tunnel syndrome. Here are five things you need to know about this painful elbow injury.

What are the signs of ulnar neuropathy?

If you have ulnar neuropathy, you'll feel pain or tingling in your elbow. These symptoms progress gradually and may be made worse by activity. You may also feel these symptoms in your hands and fingers when your elbow is bent. If your hands are affected, you may have trouble holding the handlebars on your bike.

How does cycling cause it?

Your ulnar nerve runs from your shoulders to your fingers. It travels through the cubital tunnel in your elbow. This tunnel is similar to the carpal tunnel in your wrist. If this tunnel puts pressure on the nerve, ulnar neuropathy is the result.

When you hold your handlebars, you put a lot of pressure on your hands and arms. Over time, this pressure can compress the nerve within your cubital tunnel. Wearing protective equipment like padded gloves can help, but it's still important to take breaks during your ride and to change your hand position frequently to stave off overuse injuries.

Can it be treated?

Ulnar neuropathy is treated with non-surgical methods first. Your doctor may have you wear an elbow pad or a night splint for a period of three months to prevent further aggravation to your ulnar nerve. You may need to wear a splint during the day as well if the night splint doesn't help. During this treatment period, you won't be able to ride your bike or do other activities that could make your injury worse, like rest your weight on your elbows.

While you're resting your elbow, you may be told to use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease the pain. In severe cases, you may be given a prescription for a narcotic-based painkiller.

Physiotherapy can also be helpful. A physiotherapist can help you perform exercises that will help the nerve move smoothly through the cubital tunnel and protect it from being compressed.

If non-surgical treatments aren't enough, you may need to have surgery. The preferred surgical procedure for ulnar neuropathy is decompression with anterior transposition. During this procedure, your nerve will be re-positioned within your elbow to relieve the pressure on it.

What happens without treatment?

If you continue cycling without getting treatment, your condition will continue to get worse. Even worse, the ulnar nerve can be permanently damaged from the pressure within the cubital tunnel. Permanent nerve damage can lead to serious problems like chronic pain, and it's hard to be a long-distance cyclists when you have chronic pain in your elbows and hands. To avoid these problems, make sure to get treatment right away.

Is ulnar neuropathy common?

Ulnar neuropathy is a common injury among cyclists. One study examined 25 cyclists who had just completed a 600 kilometer (372 mile) bicycle ride for signs of the injury. Here are the results of the study:

  • 36% of cyclists had motor symptoms;
  • 10% of cyclists had sensory symptoms;
  • 24% of cyclists had both types of symptoms;
  • 30% of cyclists showed no symptoms.

The study found that cyclists who rode mountain bikes were more likely to suffer from sensory symptoms than road cyclists. The study did not report differences in symptoms based on rider ability. More studies need to be done with larger numbers of cyclists to confirm the findings of this study.

If you think you have ulnar neuropathy, stop cycling and schedule an appointment at a clinic like Coronation Physiotherapy