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Ulnar Nerve Compression

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by Longhornhombre, Apr 20, 2010.

  1. Longhornhombre


    Jan 24, 2009
    Austin, TX
    I've seen a few threads that touch on this subject, but thought I'd throw this out there in the hopes that it's useful to someone...!

    My main basses have been various StingRay5s (34" scale, 17.5mm string spacing) for about 11 years.

    I just recently purchased a Lakland 55-02 (35" scale, 19mm string spacing) and it's quickly become my go-to. The transition to the longer scale and wider string spacing was quick and well worth it!

    However, I started noticing my pinky finger on my left hand (my fretting hand) going numb every once in a while. It throws me off while playing obviously. I happen to have gone through a number of injuries on that wrist, so I initially thought it was connected to tendinitis, sprains/strains, etc.

    Turns out it is my ulnar nerve--the nerve that goes from your shoulder to your fingers. I'm compressing it oddly at my left elbow, specifically when I'm standing and playing. The doc says it slips out of the elbow groove a bit when I bend my elbow to play, leaving it compressed by the bone with certain movements.

    It's happening regularly now, so I'm assuming it's connected to the longer scale and subtly different technique I've adopted.

    I'm not about to give up the Lakland! So it's time to start experimenting with different strap length, technique, etc...

    Anyway, here's a quick Wikipedia entry on the ulnar nerve (it's wikipedia, so you know it's true!) in case anyone's interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulnar_nerve
  2. FromTheBassMent

    FromTheBassMent Those who can, play bass. Supporting Member

    Jan 19, 2010
    Providence, RI
    Oh man, I sympathize. I have the same problem, and it forced me to give up cello many years ago. I'm now developing the same symptom you describe with my Warwick 5. My 'Ray doesn't bother me at all.

    I had a doctor tell me once that they could open up my arm, sever the ulnar nerve and then stitch it back together at a different location in the elbow joint, and that this would solve the problem... if it didn't cause me to lose some of the coordination in my left hand. I declined. :rollno:

    Good luck!
  3. Longhornhombre


    Jan 24, 2009
    Austin, TX
    Yup - My doc told me the same thing. The good news (or bad news, depending upon how you look at it) is that my issue isn't severe enough to warrant opening me up for surgery - at least not yet!

    Praying some technique changes will do the trick...

    Thanks for the reply.
  4. 30.87hertz


    Nov 12, 2009
    Not much info on the wiki site about it. I don't think ulnar nerve decompression involves cutting the nerve, but rather the tendon which is then reattached. This is more common in men and rather muscular men with bigger biceps. To Longhorn, try not to bend your left elbow so much when you play as this causes ulnar compression. See if you are flexing your bicep muscle while you play as this can exacerbate the compression. If you are, try to play without tensing that muscle. At pauses in the music when you don't have to fret a note, straighten your left arm. Doing this intermittently even for a few seconds at a time will help a lot and possibly prevent your symptoms. Compression on the nerve causes reduced blood flow and ischemia to the nerve where it won't function properly. Straightening your arm restores blood flow to the nerve even for a few seconds can be enough to keep it functioning. At other times when you are not playing, avoid extreme elbow flexion and don't do biceps curls at the gym. Try to keep your arm straight and the palm of your hand up when you sleep (supination) to avoid pressure on the ulnar nerve while you sleep. And in other areas of you life, maximize your health to improve oxygen delivery to the nerve. Avoid smoking/drugs, control diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. I would recommend seeing a physical medicine and rehab specialist and/or a neuro surgeon regarding other therapies. The elbow is the most common place for ulnar compression, but not the only place. If you are having continued symptoms, a nerve conduction study can help determine where along the nerve the compression/injury is and thus guide therapy and validate the problem for insurance coverage. Go conservative before trying surgery.
  5. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
  6. Pacman

    Pacman Layin' Down Time Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 1, 2000
    Omaha, Nebraska
    Endorsing Artist: Roscoe Guitars, DR Strings, Aguilar Amplification
    Same thing happened to me when I got my first TRB 6 (34" scale). I knew it had been caused by my playing, so I brought my bass with me - she spotted it immediately. It wasn't the elbow that was compressing the nerve, but the wrist (I tend to leave the bass very horizontal when I play). Once I changed that, it went away - never happened again. Try making sure your wrists stay straight(er) when you play.
  7. I had it in my right elbow. Doc assumed he'd have to move the nerve as usual but didn't have to- I had an unusual muscular growth that squashed the nerve. A slight trim to that growth and I'm all better. I got lucky- I hope you are as lucky as I was. Best of luck to you.
  8. alexgeddy

    alexgeddy Supporting Member

    Feb 25, 2007

    I have what you are talking about... My doc said it is "cubital tunnel syndrome"...I've lost a little bit of coordination in my left pinky but not enuff to want the surgery. I get it chedked every 6 months to make sure it's not causing muscle atrophy in my hand.

    I would find a good neurologist and let him do an emg and see how bad it is. The test is very accurate and he could pinpoint where it is coming from and tell you what do to... Mine is permanent and PT wouldn;t help...

    Good luck with it and don;t let it get the best of you!!!!
  9. engedi1


    Sep 16, 2005
    I know you love the Lakkie, but I would sell it in a heartbeat, to avoid further damage. (Also, I love Stingray V's!) I had a lakland 55-94 and had to sell it because it ended up causing me a lot of pain. I now play a 34'' Sadowsky with a great B string, and have no more pain. What good is having a Lakland that you love, if you end up getting so much nerve damage you can't play anymore? I just had to realize that I need to stick with 34'' necks only, for myself. Also, higher strap height will reduce the suppination in the left hand wrist, and that may help.
  10. Papazita


    Jun 27, 2008
    Whatever your specific cause may be, don't put off resolving it (like me) and end up with incurable nerve damage (like me).

    I had the surgery on my elbow. As far as I know, they cut and rerouted the nerve, not the tendons surrounding the nerve. I do know that it was (and still is) painful, and that it did NOTHING to help the problem. I now have reduced feeling and function in my ring and pinky fingers, as well as permanent numbness and loss of feeling in the corresponding side of my forearm, right up to the elbow. My playing has gone from "slightly above average" to "Man that guy sucks." No matter how closely I pay attention to my fretting, my fingers still trip over each other. Some days I can't play for more than just a few minutes before my arm aches or my fingers lock up. Realistically, I should probably stop playing altogether and give my arm a break, but let's face it...not gonna happen! :p

    Funny thing about nerve cells, they seem to have their own memory. You know the whole "phantom limb" deal, right? Where amputees swear they can still feel the missing appendage? I can believe it. Every once in a while, my ulnar nerve decides to spazz out and I honestly swear I can feel them doing the surgery all over again. I can feel the skin being sliced into, I can feel the various tools poking and prodding inside my arm, I can feel the nerve being cut, and I can feel the thread sliding through my skin as they stitch me back up. Boy does that ever make for a fun day!
  11. alexgeddy

    alexgeddy Supporting Member

    Feb 25, 2007
    Papazita sorry for your pain there ....

    Thats exactly why I told th OP to see a good neurologist ... to nip it in the bud and see what his options are before he has more issues.

    I was lucky mine stopped at the pinky and It isn;t as bad as yours.

    good luck!
  12. Longhornhombre


    Jan 24, 2009
    Austin, TX
    I figured it would be in my wrist as well, but Doc confirmed it is indeed in my elbow.

    All - Thanks for the comments. Great feedback. Good to hear from you all on this topic. Hope others will benefits from this thread in the future as well!
  13. Raiven


    Nov 28, 2005
    I get this in both arms due to having cysts in the elbow joint which is lovely and means if i get stressed then i get a flare up and its uncomfortable to play for a few days.

    I was offered the surgery to relocate the nerve but due to chance of **** going wrong I declined, however lifting weights was recommended as a way to strengthen the body so that its less likely to occur has been the key to still play bass as well as being observant of technique and positions of body.
  14. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
    A nerve needs nerve endings to communicate relevant info back to the brain. Any damage along a nerve is normally felt where the most concentrated group of nerve endings are, in the arms case the fingers and in particular the tips. That is where they are most sensitive. So if you damage or have interference in say the ulnar or radial nerve anywhere along its route from the brain you will fell the sensation in the fingers.

    If you lose a limb, or part of it as in part of the arm, the brain still thinks of the nerve end as the hand, so if lost at the elbow the brain associates that to the hand or fingers and people will have itches the want to scratch in the hand because that is where the brain associates the nerve ends, even though there is no hand to scratch.

    That's why not all problems can be sorted out on the web, the source has to be correctly diagnosed and the variables are to great.:)
  15. Papazita


    Jun 27, 2008
    Oh, and EMG tests are not what the name implies. :p
    If I had known how "fun" it would be, I would have worn a monkey suit and sung Peter Gabriel songs!

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