Getting Disability Benefits for Cubital Tunnel Syndrome and Ulnar Nerve Entrapment

If ulnar nerve problems limit your ability to use your hands, arms, or fingers, you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Your ulnar nerves—one in each arm—provide feeling in your pinkies and ring fingers. These nerves also control the movement of the small muscles in your hands and the larger muscles in your forearms that allow you to grip.

Each ulnar nerve runs down your arm through a small tunnel (the "cubital tunnel") on the inside of your elbow and into your hand. When you bend your elbow, the cubital tunnel narrows, putting pressure on the nerve. Too much pressure and the nerve can become irritated, inflamed, or entrapped, leading to cubital tunnel syndrome or other ulnar nerve dysfunction.

Ulnar nerve entrapment can affect your ability to use your hands and arms. If your symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome or other ulnar nerve dysfunction are severe enough to prevent you from working for a year or more, you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

Who's at Risk for Cubital Tunnel Syndrome?

You're at greater risk of developing cubital tunnel syndrome if your work involves performing repetitive tasks or holding a tool in a constant position. For example, spending long periods holding a telephone to your ear or holding a welding torch or soldering iron in place while you work puts you at greater risk.

Using a computer keyboard and mouse (like carpal tunnel syndrome) is another risk factor for cubital tunnel syndrome. Other causes of ulnar nerve symptoms include the following:

  • leaning on or bending your elbow for extended periods
  • prior fractures or dislocations of the elbow
  • fluid accumulating in your elbow, and
  • bone spurs or arthritis in your elbow.

Diabetes also increases your risk of developing ulnar nerve dysfunction. The inflammation and nerve damage that can occur with diabetes can make you more susceptible to nerve compression, increasing the likelihood of your ulnar nerve becoming entrapped in the cubital tunnel.

Symptoms of Ulnar Nerve Dysfunction

Loss of feeling or numbness in the pinky and ring finger are often the first symptoms of ulnar nerve issues. Depending on how much damage has occurred to the nerve and surrounding muscles, ulnar nerve entrapment and cubital tunnel syndrome can also cause:

  • difficulty with finger coordination and moving your fingers in and out
  • pain in your elbows and fingers
  • weakened grip, and
  • muscle wasting of the hand.

How your ulnar nerve compression is treated depends on the severity of your condition. But treatment could include one or more of the following:

  • steroid injections
  • wearing a brace on your elbow or wrist
  • physical therapy, or
  • surgery.

For most people, ulnar nerve conditions can be successfully treated. But in some rare cases, the damage is permanent.

Can I Get Disability for My Ulnar Nerve Condition?

You might qualify for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) if ulnar nerve entrapment or cubital tunnel syndrome has caused you permanent damage or restricted you from many jobs—especially if you're an older worker.

But to be eligible for disability, your impairment must be so severe that it prevents you from working at the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level for at least 12 consecutive months.

It's difficult to meet Social Security's duration requirement with cubital tunnel syndrome because the condition can usually be treated successfully in less than one year. But successful treatment of ulnar nerve entrapment sometimes means changing the type of work you do. For example, a data entry specialist might have to switch to a job that doesn't require typing.

If switching jobs isn't practical for you because of your age, education, or work history, Social Security might approve your disability claim.

How Does Social Security Decide If My Ulnar Nerve Condition Is Disabling?

Once you meet the basic eligibility rules for disability, Social Security will consider whether your ulnar nerve condition meets the requirements of one of the medical conditions outlined in the SSA's Listing of Impairments (referred to as listings). If you have a listed condition that meets all the listing's criteria, Social Security will automatically approve your disability benefits.

Unfortunately, ulnar nerve conditions, like cubital tunnel syndrome and ulnar impaction syndrome, don't have listings. But that doesn't mean they can't qualify you for disability benefits.

If you don't have a listed condition, Social Security will determine whether you can still work. That determination begins with an assessment of how your medical condition limits your ability to function in a work setting.

How Social Security Assesses Your Residual Functional Capacity

Social Security will determine your physical residual functional capacity (RFC)—what you can physically do on a regular and sustained basis despite your limitations.

Exertional imitations. The claims examiner will use the medical evidence in your file to assess how your condition affects your ability to do certain strength-related activities, such as:

  • lifting
  • carrying
  • walking, and
  • standing.

Your RFC is expressed as the kind of work you can do: sedentary, light, or medium work. An RFC for someone with only an ulnar nerve condition will probably always state that the person can do at least a sit-down job (sedentary work). But depending on your non-strength-related limitations, you might still get approval.

Non-exertional limitations. Social Security will include information on your non-exertional (non-strength-related) limitations in your RFC. Non-exertional limitations could include restrictions like being unable to type, write, or do repetitive work with your hands. Cubital tunnel syndrome can cause other non-exertional limitations, such as:

  • difficulty using your affected hand to manipulate objects
  • the inability to feel objects with the affected hand
  • difficulty reaching overhead
  • the inability to concentrate and focus (due to pain), and
  • the inability to follow and remember instructions (due to pain).

How Does Social Security Use Your RFC Limitations?

These limitations are important in a claim based on cubital tunnel syndrome and other ulnar nerve conditions. The more non-exertional limitations you experience, the fewer jobs you can be expected to do.

Here are some examples of how a disability claim based on ulnar nerve conditions might be evaluated.

Learn more in our article about how non-exertional limitations affect the disability decision.

Combination of Impairments

If you have more than one medical condition, Social Security must consider their combined effect on your ability to work. For example, it's not uncommon for someone with cubital tunnel syndrome to also suffer from type II diabetes. If you have additional limitations due to diabetes, you should include those in your claim.

Learn more about how you can win your claim using a combination of impairments.

Does It Help My Disability Claim if I'm Older?

It can be much easier for you to get approved for disability benefits based on cubital tunnel syndrome or other ulnar nerve conditions if you're 50 or older. That's because of Social Security's "grid rules." If the SSA finds you can't do your old job, the agency will use the grid rules to determine whether it's practical for you to switch to another type of work.

The "grids" are a series of tables that include your:

  • age
  • RFC
  • education level
  • the skill level of your past work, and
  • whether any of your job skills can be transferred to a new position.

For each combination of factors, the table states whether or not you can be expected to switch to other work. If the grids indicate you can do a different job, Social Security will deny your disability claim. But if the grids indicate you can't switch jobs, Social Security will consider you disabled.

To learn more, read our article on how to win your claim using the medical-vocational grid rules.

Medical Evidence You'll Need to Prove Your Nerve Damage Is a Disability

Social Security will decide whether or not you qualify medically for disability benefits based on the medical evidence in your file. Your file should include all your medical records related to your ulnar nerve condition, such as:

  • your treating doctor's physical examination and treatment notes
  • imaging studies (MRI, CT scan, and X-rays)
  • elbow flexion tests
  • nerve conduction studies
  • physical therapy records, and
  • information about the medications you've tried (including their effectiveness and any side effects).

One of the most important pieces of evidence in your file is your doctor's assessment of how your cubital tunnel syndrome or ulnar nerve entrapment affects your day-to-day functioning—especially your ability to function in a work environment. Social Security will give a good deal of weight to your doctor's opinion—as long as it's backed up by the other evidence in your file.

Your medical records and doctor's statements should be from within the past three to four months and be complete enough to give Social Security an accurate picture of your limitations. If you have multiple impairments (like ulnar nerve entrapment and diabetes or arthritis), Social Security should have records from all your treating doctors, such as your:

  • primary care provider
  • neurologist, and
  • endocrinologist.

Learn more about getting your doctor's help with your disability claim.

How to Apply for Disability Based on Ulnar Nerve Issues

The first step to getting disability for your cubital tunnel syndrome or ulnar nerve entrapment is applying for Social Security benefits. There are two types of disability benefits you might qualify to receive:

  • SSDI (Social Security disability insurance), and
  • SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

SSDI benefits are for disabled workers who've paid enough Social Security taxes (FICA or self-employment tax) into the system. SSI provides monthly disability benefits to those with low incomes and few resources, whether or not they've worked and paid taxes.

Although the nonmedical requirements for SSDI and SSI differ, applying for benefits is a similar process for most adults. There are three ways to file a disability claim with Social Security:

Learn more about the Social Security disability application process.

If Social Security initially denies you disability benefits, you might successfully appeal your claim depending on your age and whether you have other disabling conditions. In this situation, you might benefit from talking to an experienced disability attorney about your case.

The VA Disability Rating for Cubital Tunnel Syndrome or Ulnar Nerve Damage

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides disability compensation based on cubital tunnel syndrome and other ulnar nerve damage. Unlike Social Security disability, the VA's disability ratings system means you don't have to be totally disabled to qualify for benefits. But your cubital tunnel syndrome or ulnar nerve entrapment must be service-connected.

The VA rates cubital tunnel syndrome under diseases of the peripheral nerves using diagnostic codes 8516, 8616, and 8716, depending on the severity of your ulnar nerve damage. (38 C.F.R. § 4.124a.) Ratings range from 10% for mild dysfunction in either arm to 60% for complete paralysis of the ulnar nerve on your dominant side. Complete paralysis means you have:

  • significant muscle wasting (atrophy) in your hand
  • an inability to spread (or reverse) your ring finger and pinky
  • an inability to bend your wrist, or
  • the "griffin claw" deformity due to flexor contraction of your ring and little fingers.

Moderate and severe dysfunction (incomplete paralysis) of your ulnar nerve are rated from 20% to 40%, depending on which arm is affected.

If you have ulnar nerve damage in both arms, the VA will increase your disability rating by applying the "bilateral factor." When disability affects both sides of your body, the VA combines the ratings for the ulnar nerve damage in your right and left arms, then adds 10% of the value of the combined ratings.

Learn more about how the disability ratings affect your VA benefits.

Updated April 22, 2024

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