JOURNAL ARTICLE
REVIEW

Treatment for ulnar neuropathy at the elbow

Pietro Caliandro, Giuseppe La Torre, Roberto Padua, Fabio Giannini, Luca Padua
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016 November 15, 11: CD006839
27845501

BACKGROUND: Ulnar neuropathy at the elbow (UNE) is the second most common entrapment neuropathy after carpal tunnel syndrome. Treatment may be conservative or surgical, but optimal management remains controversial. This is an update of a review first published in 2010 and previously updated in 2012.

OBJECTIVES: To determine the effectiveness and safety of conservative and surgical treatment in ulnar neuropathy at the elbow (UNE). We intended to test whether:- surgical treatment is effective in reducing symptoms and signs and in increasing nerve function;- conservative treatment is effective in reducing symptoms and signs and in increasing nerve function;- it is possible to identify the best treatment on the basis of clinical, neurophysiological, or nerve imaging assessment.

SEARCH METHODS: On 31 May 2016 we searched the Cochrane Neuromuscular Specialised Register, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, Embase, AMED, CINAHL Plus, and LILACS. We also searched PEDro (14 October 2016), and the papers cited in relevant reviews. On 4 July 2016 we searched trials registries for ongoing or unpublished trials.

SELECTION CRITERIA: The review included only randomised controlled clinical trials (RCTs) or quasi-RCTs evaluating people with clinical symptoms suggesting the presence of UNE. We included trials evaluating all forms of surgical and conservative treatments. We considered studies regarding therapy of UNE with or without neurophysiological evidence of entrapment.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors independently reviewed titles and abstracts of references retrieved from the searches and selected all potentially relevant studies. The review authors independently extracted data from included trials and assessed trial quality. We contacted trial investigators for any missing information.

MAIN RESULTS: We identified nine RCTs (587 participants) for inclusion in the review, of which three studies were found at this update. The sequence generation was inadequate in one study and not described in three studies. We performed two meta-analyses to evaluate the clinical (3 trials, 261 participants) and neurophysiological (2 trials, 101 participants) outcomes of simple decompression versus decompression with submuscular or subcutaneous transposition; four trials in total examined this comparison.We found no difference between simple decompression and transposition of the ulnar nerve for both clinical improvement (risk ratio (RR) 0.93, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.80 to 1.08; moderate-quality evidence) and neurophysiological improvement (mean difference (in m/s) 1.47, 95% CI -0.94 to 3.87). The number of participants to clinically improve was 91 out of 131 in the simple decompression group and 97 out of 130 in the transposition group. Transposition showed a higher number of wound infections (RR 0.32, 95% CI 0.12 to 0.85; moderate-quality evidence).In one trial (47 participants), the authors compared medial epicondylectomy with anterior transposition and found no difference in clinical and neurophysiological outcomes.In one trial (48 participants), the investigators compared subcutaneous transposition with submuscular transposition and found no difference in clinical outcomes.In one trial (54 participants for 56 nerves treated), the authors found no difference between endoscopic and open decompression in improving clinical function.One trial (51 participants) assessed conservative treatment in clinically mild or moderate UNE. Based on low-quality evidence, the trial authors found that information on avoiding prolonged movements or positions was effective in improving subjective discomfort. Night splinting and nerve gliding exercises in addition to information provision did not result in further improvement.One trial (55 participants) assessed the effectiveness of corticosteroid injection and found no difference versus placebo in improving symptoms at three months' follow-up.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: We found only two studies of treatment of ulnar neuropathy using conservative treatment as the comparator. The available comparative treatment evidence is not sufficient to support a multiple treatment meta-analysis to identify the best treatment for idiopathic UNE on the basis of clinical, neurophysiological, and imaging characteristics. We do not know when to treat a person with this condition conservatively or surgically. Moderate-quality evidence indicates that simple decompression and decompression with transposition are equally effective in idiopathic UNE, including when the nerve impairment is severe. Decompression with transposition is associated with more deep and superficial wound infections than simple decompression, also based on moderate-quality evidence. People undergoing endoscopic surgery were more likely to have a haematoma. Evidence from one small RCT of conservative treatment showed that in mild cases, information on movements or positions to avoid may reduce subjective discomfort.

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