Changes in Interstitial Pressure and Cross-Sectional Area of the Cubital Tunnel and of the Ulnar Nerve with Flexion of the Elbow. An Experimental Study in Human Cadavera*

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Abstract

The purpose of this study was to determine the relationship between the ulnar nerve and the cubital tunnel during flexion of the elbow with use of magnetic resonance imaging and measurements of intraneural and extraneural interstitial pressure. Twenty specimens from human cadavera were studied with the elbow in positions of incremental flexion. With use of magnetic resonance imaging, cross-sectional images were made at each of three anatomical regions of the cubital tunnel: the medial epicondyle, deep to the cubital tunnel aponeurosis, and deep to the flexor carpi ulnaris muscle. The cross-sectional areas of the cubital tunnel and the ulnar nerve were calculated and compared for different positions of elbow flexion. Interstitial pressures were measured with use of ultrasonographic imaging to allow a minimally invasive method of placement of the pressure catheter, both within the cubital tunnel and four centimeters proximal to it, at 10-degree increments from 0 to 130 degrees of elbow flexion.As the elbow was moved from full extension to 135 degrees of flexion, the mean cross-sectional area of the three regions of the cubital tunnel decreased by 30, 39, and 41 per cent and the mean area of the ulnar nerve decreased by 33, 50, and 34 per cent. These changes were significant in all three regions of the cubital tunnel (p < 0.05). The greatest changes occurred in the region beneath the aponeurosis of the cubital tunnel with the elbow at 135 degrees of flexion.The mean intraneural pressure within the cubital tunnel was significantly higher than the mean extraneural pressure when the elbow was flexed 90, 100, 110, and 130 degrees (p < 0.05). With the elbow flexed 130 degrees, the mean intraneural pressure was 45 per cent higher than the mean extraneural pressure (p < 0.001). Similarly, with the elbow flexed 120 degrees or more, the mean intraneural pressure four centimeters proximal to the cubital tunnel was significantly higher than the mean extraneural pressure (p < 0.01). Relative to their lowest values, intraneural pressure increased at smaller angles of flexion than did extraneural pressure, both within the cubital tunnel and proximal to it. With the numbers available, we could not detect any significant difference in intraneural pressure measured, either at the level of the cubital tunnel or four centimeters proximal to it, after release of the aponeurotic roof of the cubital tunnel.CLINICAL RELEVANCE: These findings demonstrate that the cubital tunnel is a dynamic region morphologically. Both the cubital tunnel and the ulnar nerve change in area by as much as 50 per cent as the normal elbow is flexed and extended, with substantial flattening of the ulnar nerve but no evidence of direct, focal compression. These morphological findings corresponded well with measurements of interstitial pressure, which demonstrated an initial increase in intraneural pressure without a corresponding increase in extraneural pressure. This indicates that traction on the ulnar nerve is a major cause of increased intraneural pressure in association with flexion of the elbow.

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