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J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2012 Dec;21(12):1632-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jse.2012.04.007. Epub 2012 Jun 26.

The contracted elbow: is ulnar nerve release necessary?

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Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh, PA 15212, USA.



Prophylactic release of the ulnar nerve in patients undergoing capsular release for severe elbow contractures has been recommended, although there are limited data to support this recommendation. Our hypothesis was that more severely limited preoperative flexion and extension would be associated with a higher incidence of postoperative ulnar nerve symptoms in patients undergoing capsular release.


We conducted a retrospective review of 164 consecutive patients who underwent open or arthroscopic elbow capsular release for stiffness between 2003 and 2010. The ulnar nerve was decompressed if the patient had preoperative ulnar nerve symptoms or a positive Tinel test. Preoperative and postoperative range of motion and incidence of ulnar nerve symptoms were recorded.


The mean improvement in the arc of motion of was 36.7°. New-onset postoperative ulnar nerve symptoms developed in 7 of 87 patients (8.1%) who did not undergo ulnar nerve decompression; eventually, 5 of these patients with persistent symptoms underwent ulnar nerve decompression. The rate of developing postoperative symptoms was higher if patients had preoperative flexion ≤ 100° (15.2%) compared with those with preoperative flexion >100° (3.7%). There was no association between preoperative extension or gain in motion arc and postoperative symptoms.


The overall rate of ulnar nerve symptoms after elbow contracture release was low if ulnar nerve decompression was performed in patients with preoperative symptoms or a positive Tinel test. There was a higher rate of ulnar nerve symptoms in patients with more severe contractures (≤ 100° of preoperative flexion), which did not reach statistical significance.

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