Anatomic Landmarks to Locate the Median Nerve for Safe Wrist Block or Carpal Tunnel Steroid Injection

Ron Brooks, MD; Amanda Kistler, MD; Saeed Chowdhry, MD; Andrew Swiergosz, BS; Katharina Perlin, BS; Morton L. Kasdan, MD; Bradon J. Wilhelmi, MD


ePlasty. 2019;19(e19) 

In This Article


Inadvertent nerve injection can have devastating functional consequences. Iatrogenic injection-related injury has a 2% incidence according to literature, 3.6% of that specific to the MN. However, these statistics represent injuries to the MN at both the wrist and the cubital fossa near the location of the median cubital vein.[9] No specific statistics exist for iatrogenic nerve injury of the MN in the location of the carpal tunnel with relation to local steroid injection, as most reported data are in the form of case reports.

Still, research has demonstrated the anatomic, both on the micro and macro scales, effect on the nerve as well as the resultant symptoms. Histological studies have demonstrated that intraneural steroid injection leads to thickened white plaque, which has been referred to a "granuloma," at both the epineural and perineural levels.[10] Conduction studies have also demonstrated an increased latency in compound motor action potentials measured to be 4.35 and 4.20 milliseconds at 2 weeks and 6 months postinjection where values greater than 4.20 milliseconds were determined to be abnormal. Perceived sensory changes also diminished over time and were accompanied by a decrease in the latency of the sensory nerve action potentials.[11] Clinical symptoms present at the time of injection are characterized as a shooting or burning pain in the distribution of the MN and can progress to varying degrees of paresethsias including hypo/hyperesthesia and anesthesia, allodynia, and hypoalgesia as well as decreased motor function.[9–12] It has been suggested that motor function is impacted to a greater degree but that there is a high likelihood of spontaneous recovery with usually a mild deficit.[9,13] To avoid injury, one may consider awake injections where a patient provides feedback relating to sensory or motor symptoms, allowing the physician to reposition or remove the needle as well as considering a smaller diameter needle. As a consequence of iatrogenic injection injuries that can lead to permanent deficits, multiple injection locations have been suggested.

Menge et al[8] in "Carpal Tunnel Injections: A Novel Approach Based on Wrist Width" referenced multiple different injection locations to minimize iatrogenic injury including injection radial to the PL tendon, in line with the fourth digit, between the PL and FCR tendon, between the PL and FCU tendon, and through the FCR tendon with a risk of tendon rupture with direct injection. However, they acknowledged a lack of consistency in injury prevention. They discussed significant variability in the use of superficial landmarks to identify the carpal tunnel as well as injection techniques and advocated using the wrist width for both volar radial and ulnar injection techniques. Specifically, the wrist width was measured at the distal wrist flexion crease from the skin overlying the radial styloid extending to the skin overlying the ulnar styloid, commonly known as the interstyloid line. Findings demonstrated that using 30% to 33% of the wrist width from the radial styloid for volar radial injections demonstrated no direct injection or perforation of the radial artery or MN.[8] Still, this technique is one of many that are described (Table 2).[8,14–23] Of note, it is important to mention that injection between the PL and FCR tendon does place the palmar cutaneous branch of the MN at risk of iatrogenic injury, as it typically lies only 8 mm radial to the PL tendon.[24]

Kim et al[12] in "Median Nerve Injuries Caused by Carpal Tunnel Injections" also echoed Menge et al in acknowledging the innumerable injection locations (Figure 2). However, they go on to further state that steroid injections should be used sparingly and advocate only the most commonly used approach of needle insertion just ulnar to the PL tendon at the wrist crease as well as ultrasound guidance, if possible.[12] Nonetheless, they note that iatrogenic nerve injection does occur and promote both surgical and nonsurgical management. Nonsurgical management consists of physical therapy, activity modification, splinting, and anti-inflammatory medications, methods that are attempted with less advanced CTS. If improvement is not observed within 3 months or if there is severe neuromotor loss or severe debilitating pain, they recommend consideration of surgical correction including neurolysis, resection with graft repair, and/or debridement.[12] With a clear lack of defined injection location, our study used anatomic measurements to identify a location that would be free of iatrogenic injection injuries.

Figure 2.

Suggested injection site to avoid iatrogenic injury to the median nerve.

Using 7 cadavers from the fresh tissue laboratory at the University of Louisville, we were able to identify a safe location for steroid injection that would prevent intraneural injection. As various injection techniques exist, as discussed previously, we used common landmarks such as the PL and FCR tendons. As research supports, the MN is typically located ulnar to the PL tendon, which was supported by our data. Specifically, our data demonstrated an average distance from the PL to the MN of 3 mm, data support up to 13 mm, where all cadavers demonstrated an ulnar located MN with respect to the PL, again where research demonstrates that ulnar location in 88% of hands.[14] Similarly, our finding that the MN is typically located ulnar to the midpoint of the wrist by 0.43 mm led to our assertion that injection to the PL tendon would prevent iatrogenic MN injury. Furthermore, our data used the FCR tendon as the radial most measurement with relation to the MN as it is located just outside of the carpal tunnel and its tendon can be easily palpated. The distance calculated from the MN to the FCR was 9.57 mm. As the average width of the MN in our study was 7.85 mm and the PL tendon was 6.25 mm, we were able to combine our data to recommend ideal injection location ulnar to the FCR tendon or between 8 and 10 mm radial to the midpoint of the wrist.