My Approach to Treating Subluxating Ulnar Nerve and Snapping Triceps Syndrome
Note: My E-BOOK discussing these conditions is now available. I’ve posted an update at the bottom of this article. The information in this post is limited – it is only about my experiences earlier in the year (2013) with initially treating this injury. I’ve learned much about subluxating ulnar nerve and snapping triceps syndrome since, so the information in this post will only be a fraction of the “whole picture”.
Months ago, I began performing certain exercises again after a long, 4-year lay-off. Coming back from injuries and being able to move again is great, until you realize you have other injuries to worry about.
When performing pushups, namely, I noticed that I felt a weird snapping in the medial side of my elbows. Whenever I’d descend, I would feel an odd sensation, and when I’d push back up, I’d feel the snap. It was all very odd, somewhat disgusting, and very annoying.
After reading up on some stuff I found online, I realized I had snapping triceps syndrome. As defined by researchers at the University of Michigan Medical Center, the elbow snapping represents either of two occurrences:
- “Medial dislocation of the medial head of the triceps muscle over the medial epicondyle during elbow flexion“, which is known as snapping triceps syndrome, and…
- “Abnormal movement of the ulnar nerve out of the cubital tunnel and over the medial epicondyle during elbow flexion“, which is known as subluxating ulnar nerve.
So, either my ulnar nerve or my triceps tendon were snapping over my funny bone whenever I was doing pushups. Excellent.
Anyway, what else that was awesome about this is that I learned that that continual aggravation of the elbow with this “snapping” could either damage the triceps muscle/tendon or the ulnar nerve, depending on which condition is present. Excellent, again.
One other bit of information that I found quirky was that up to 16% of the population experiences this kind of injury. 16% is a HUGE part of the population. If you look on the internet for “snapping triceps treatment”, you will find that there’s very little understanding of this injury in the medical profession and, subsequently, no cure. How can this many people have this seemingly unprovoked injury, yet doctors don’t know the cause or have a solution to it?
I sought to find the answer for this injury. At this point in time, I wrote the post titled “Fighting Elbow Pain“, talking about my experience once I began to see progress. If you just want to see what I did to fix my snapping triceps syndrome, continue reading.
Soft-Tissue Work And Massage
I followed Eric Cressey’s advice, who believes soft-tissue-work is paramount for most elbow issues. What he specifically recommended was active-release technique (or, ART) and Graston technique. Both modalities break up scar tissue and adhesions, relax overactive muscles, and improve blood-flow to the regions being worked on.
Here’s an example of the Graston technique being perform (warning, this stuff is kind of gross):
I found a chiropractor who performed these sports-medicine-style therapies. The areas that I had treated were the triceps muscle, the forearm muscle, and my pec minor. After discontinuing the sessions with the chiropractor who went Medieval on my body, I continued to massage the areas on my own.
Here are some demonstrations of the massages I did on my own.
The first picture is of me massaging my triceps, and the second is of my massaging my forearm muscles. I used a lacrosse ball against a wall, as the density and lack of “give” in the ball is perfect for beating up muscles and tissue.
I also massaged my pec minor, which I did not take pictures of. So, here is a video I found online that basically demonstrates what I did to my pec minor.
When doing any of these massages, I made sure to dig deep into my muscles, and not go easy on myself. Soft-tissue work and sports-medicine massage is not supposed to feel good or relaxing, as its purpose is to break down scar tissue and and adhesions. So, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. I mean, that’s at least how I felt when I received Active-Release Technique and Graston Technique. That stuff hurts!
One word of warning: be careful as you work near the elbow – for anyone who’s bumped their elbow before and feel their “funny bone” go crazy and their fingers go numb, the same deal can happen here. The ulnar nerve is very close to the surface around the “snapping” region. Make sure to work on the muscles AROUND the region, not work ON the region.
KT Tape For The Elbow
I’ve read some success stories with a product called “KT Tape” before, so I was curious to see if it’d help my snapping triceps syndrome.
KT Tape is this elastic sports tape that can be used on different areas of the body to help with various ailments. My chiropractor explained to me the different ways that this product SUPPOSEDLY works. First, the elasticity of the tape can stabilize loose joints, or provide a stretch-reflex (which would deload the joint and discourage excessive range-of-motion). Second, the tape “pulling” at your skin as you move can provide proprioceptive feedback, which can help “turn on” muscles.
With the help of a second person, I used the technique shown in this video (which is actually for Golfer’s Elbow) to tape up my elbow. I tried doing it on my own – that didn’t work out too well.
As a side-note, this stuff adheres for the longest if you wash the skin with soap first, fully dry it off, and rub the tape on the skin after it is applied. KT Tape will stay on for days, even with daily showers, if you use the proper methods of applying it on.
After trying this, I was able to do knee-pushups without issue. I was completely “aware” of my elbow as I was exercising, preventing myself from going into too much elbow flexion. This literally stopped the snapping in my elbow. The stretch-reflex, the proprioceptive-feedback – all of it was helpful as I was now able to perform limited, albeit functional, exercise.
I definitely recommend KT Tape for just injuries in general, as I’m sure it’s helped me with snapping triceps and ulnar nerve subluxation, as well as with other injuries I’ve had recently. Plus, you get to choose from a wide assortment of colors! You can pick the color – Winner Green, Stealth Beige, Laser Blue, Epic Purple, Blaze Orange, Jet Black, Solar Yellow, Hero Pink, and Camouflage.
Externally-Rotated Hands And Internally-Rotated Arms.
As I mentioned before, I theorized that the ulnar nerve is under more tension when the hands are pronated (e.g., palms down) and the elbow is flexed. So, what if we’re able to position our joints so that there is more “relief” for the nerve?
I notice that whenever I do pushups with my hands pointed forward (internally-rotated) and my elbows at my sides (externally-rotated), the snapping happens immediately and is feels more “snappy” and forceful. If I externally rotate my hands a bit (hands pointed at 10 and 2 o’clock) and slightly internally rotate my arms (elbows at 45 degrees), I’m able to achieve more depth, at least to 90 degrees of elbow flexion, while doing pushups.
Working Within Limited Range-Of-Motion
As the elbow approaches around 90 degrees of flexion is when most people seem to experience snapping. I’m not sure why this is the magic number for snapping triceps syndrome and subluxating ulnar nerve, but you can read any message board online where people are talking about this, and you’ll see that 90 degrees is the common denominator.
While this restricts the ability to do the bench press, pushups, or overhead press, it is not impossible to perform these exercises. You can still work between 0 degrees to just before 90 degrees or however deep you experience the snapping. By doing this, you will still maintain some of strength while dealing with this injury – or, that’s at least what I experienced.
What I found to help me find that “sweet spot” of depth before experiencing snapping was to perform each pushup slow, especially on the way down. After a few times of feeling my elbow snap, I was then intuitively able to “feel” for how deep I can go with my range-of-motion. A little experimentation goes a long way.
After a few months, I found that I’m rarely experiencing any snapping in my elbow, all while I’m able to increase my functional range-of-motion with pressing exercises – not a lot, but still an improvement. The body is a funny piece of work, but it can beautifully adapt to stress and repair itself over time, if given the proper environment.
I find it to be astonishing that such a large number of people can have snapping triceps syndrome or ulnar nerve subluxation/dislocation. The medical professionals have no answers, cures, or treatments, so sometimes we’ve got to take responsibility in our own hands and figure out what is necessary to fix our bodies. And, in my case, it seemed to work out just fine.
Back in 2013, I brought up writing an e-book about my experiences with snapping triceps syndrome and subluxating ulnar nerve. Well, it’s finally complete and you can buy it here today. Thank you for being so patient during the process!