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What is Ulnar Nerve Release?

Ulnar nerve release, also known as ulnar nerve decompression, is a surgical procedure to treat a medical condition called ulnar nerve entrapment.

Ulnar nerve entrapment is a condition characterized by compression of the ulnar nerve by adjoining tissues most often at or near the elbow, specifically on the inner side of the elbow. Ulnar nerve entrapment can also occur less commonly near or at the wrist. As the ulnar nerve travels through the whole length of the arm, there are various places along the nerve that can become irritated or compressed. This irritation or compression is known as ulnar nerve entrapment.

The main objective of the ulnar nerve release procedure is to decrease the pressure on the ulnar nerve by trimming and separating the overlying ligament and providing more space for the nerve to move freely.

Anatomy of the Ulnar Nerve

The ulnar nerve is one of the three major nerves in the arm. It begins in the neck region and passes via the shoulder down the arm into the wrist and fingers. It provides sensation to the forearm and 4th and 5th finger of the hands. It also regulates most of the little muscles in the hand that assist with fine movements plus some of the bigger muscles in the forearm that assist in accomplishing a strong grip.

Indications for Ulnar Nerve Release

Some of the indications for an ulnar nerve release procedure include:

  • Persistent and intermittent tingling and numbness in the 4th and 5th fingers
  • A feeble grasp in the affected hand
  • A sense of “falling asleep” of the 4th and 5th fingers
  • Muscle weakness and impaired muscle function in the fingers
  • Difficulty in controlling fingers for specific tasks
  • Tenderness and pain in the elbow joint
  • Sensitivity to cold temperatures

Preparation for Ulnar Nerve Release

Preoperative preparation for ulnar nerve release will involve the following steps:

  • A thorough examination by your doctor to check for any medical issues that need to be addressed prior to surgery.
  • Routine blood work may be ordered to look for any abnormalities that might complicate surgery.
  • X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan are ordered to assess surrounding structures and condition of the ulnar nerve.
  • You will be asked if you have any allergies to medications, anesthesia, or latex.
  • You should inform your doctor of any medications, vitamins, or supplements that you may be taking.
  • You should refrain from medications or supplements such as blood thinners, aspirin, or anti-inflammatory medicines for a week or two prior to surgery.
  • You should refrain from alcohol or tobacco at least 24 hours prior to surgery.
  • You should not consume any solids or liquids at least 8 hours prior to surgery.
  • Arrange for someone to drive you home as you will not be able to drive yourself post surgery.
  • A written consent will be obtained from you after the surgical procedure has been explained in detail.

Procedure for Ulnar Nerve Release

If nonsurgical treatment measures such as anti-inflammatory medications, braces or splints, exercises and physical therapy fail to provide satisfactory relief to ulnar nerve entrapment, ulnar nerve release surgery is employed as a final measure.

The procedure is mostly performed in an outpatient setting and usually takes less than an hour. The procedure involves the following steps:

  • General or local anesthesia is administered to the patient.
  • A 3- to 4-inch incision is made on the inner aspect of the elbow to access and visualize the ulnar nerve.
  • Your surgeon then cuts and separates the overlying ligament or removes the bony bump compressing the ulnar nerve and creates more space for the ulnar nerve to move smoothly. 
  • After confirming adequate decompression of the ulnar nerve, the overlying soft tissue and skin are closed with sutures and sterile bandages are applied.

Postoperative Care and Recovery

In general, postoperative care and recovery after ulnar nerve release involve the following:

  • You will be transferred to the recovery area to be monitored until you are awake from the anesthesia.
  • Your nurse will monitor your blood oxygen level and other vital signs as you recover.
  • You will be placed in a sling for the first few days with instructions on restricted activities.
  • You are advised to keep your arm elevated above your chest for a day or two while resting to prevent swelling and pain.
  • You may be advised to wear a splint on your elbow for a couple of weeks to help the area heal.
  • You are encouraged to gently exercise your fingers, elbow, and shoulder to prevent stiffness.
  • Application of ice packs is advised to prevent stiffness and swelling.
  • You may notice some pain and discomfort in the elbow and hand area. Medications will be provided for your comfort.
  • Anti-nausea medications will be prescribed as needed for discomfort associated with anesthesia.
  • Physical therapy and range of motion exercises are recommended to restore mobility and strengthen the joint and muscles.
  • You should keep your surgical site clean and dry for at least 48 hours. Instructions on surgical site care and bathing will be provided.
  • Refrain from strenuous activities or lifting heavy objects for at least a month. A gradual increase of activities over a period of time is recommended.
  • You will be able to resume most of your normal activities within a week.
  • A follow-up appointment will be scheduled to monitor your progress.

Benefits of Ulnar Nerve Release

Some of the benefits of ulnar nerve release procedure include:

  • Improves arm function
  • Alleviates numbness and pain
  • Prevents permanent damage to the ulnar nerve

Risks and Complications of Ulnar Nerve Release

Ulnar nerve release is a relatively safe procedure; however, as with any surgery, there are risks and complications that could occur, such as:

  • Pain
  • Bleeding
  • Anesthetic reactions
  • Infection 
  • Nerve damage
  • Stiffness
  • Continued or recurrence of ulnar nerve-related symptoms
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
  •  Arthroscopy Association of North America
  • American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
  • International Society of Arthroscopy, Knee Surgery and Orthopaedic Sports Medicine
  • Alpha Omega Alpha