This Is Your Funny Bone—and Why Hitting It Hurts So Much
Hitting your funny bone is no laughing matter. Here's why it's called a funny bone, why hurts so bad—and when to seek medical help.
What is the funny bone?
Whoever named the back of your elbow the “funny bone” had a lousy sense of humor: There’s nothing funny about whacking this part of your anatomy or the special agony you’ll feel. One theory for the name is that it’s related to the upper arm bone, the humerus, which does sound like “humorous”—but we’re still not laughing. So what is a funny bone?
The “bone” part of the name actually refers to a protrusion on the humerus called the medial epicondyle, though it doesn’t fully explain the sensation. That zingy pain comes from a nearby nerve. (Here’s why you have darker skin on your elbow and knees.)
“The ‘funny bone’ refers to the ulnar nerve behind your elbow,” says Steve Lee, MD, chief of the Hand and Upper Extremity Service at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. This is one of the three main nerves in your arm that travel from your neck down your arm and into your hand, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). The ulnar nerve provides sensation in your small finger and part of your ring finger. It’s responsible for fine motor movement and plays a role in grip strength.
(These are the pinched nerve symptoms you should know.)
Why does hitting your funny bone hurt so bad?
At your elbow, the ulnar nerve is in a vulnerable and superficial spot, says Eric Q Pang, MD, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand, wrist, and elbow disorders in Seattle.
Hitting your elbow on something (like your desk or a door) irritates this nerve, which shoots numbness and tingling down through your ring and little fingers. (These are the health symptoms to never ignore.)
But the funny bone hurts in a way that bumping another part of your arm does not. “In other areas of the body, the nerves are deep inside or there are other muscles or tissues on top. The ulnar nerve is really exposed, which is why it’s predisposed to getting hit,” says Dr. Pang. Many people describe the sensation of hitting it as a little electrical shock, he says.
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Can you hurt yourself by hitting your funny bone?
Most of the time, banging your funny bone won’t cause damage to your ulnar nerve—though there are a few exceptions that may require medical attention:
- A traumatic injury to your elbow, like falling off a bike
- A severe penetrating wound with a sharp object, like a knife
- Post-surgical scarring after surgery to or around the elbow
- A gunshot wound
How to care for your funny bone
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do if you hit your elbow “funny bone” and feel that electrical pulse fire through your ulnar nerve. The discomfort should dissipate quickly, and you might want to consider simple pain relief strategies like icing with a bag of corn or any frozen produce. However, there are lifestyle habits that can aggravate this area you’ll want to avoid:
Take a break from typing
For best elbow and ulnar nerve health, “avoid keeping your elbow bent for a long time, as that increases the pressure on the nerve,” says Dr. Lee. Working at a computer all day will do this. Just like you take a break for your eyes, break to stretch your arms, and do something else. (Here are other ways technology can make you sick.)
You can’t always control the position you roll into at night, but ideally, you would not sleep with your elbow bent, Dr. Lee says. Sleeping with a flexed elbow stretches and irritates the nerve. He says there are arm braces you can purchase online to hold your elbow in the correct position, or you can roll a towel around your arm like a tube and secure it with tape for a do-it-yourself option.
(This is the healthiest sleep position, according to science.)
Simply leaning on the elbow for a long period of time, like having your elbow bent against the window when driving, can compress this area, says Dr. Pang. The fix is to stop whatever position is bringing you pain—but’s good to be aware of ways you’re sitting that exacerbates discomfort.
Medical conditions associated with the “funny bone”
Cubital tunnel syndrome, also known as ulnar nerve entrapment at the elbow, happens when the ulnar nerve is compressed or irritated, notes the AAOS. Symptoms, says Dr. Pang, include:
- Numbness in the small and ring finger
- Intermittent radiating pain from the elbow to small and ring fingers
- Weakness in the hand
You may be at risk of cubital tunnel if you have fractured or dislocated your elbow in the past, have arthritis in the elbow, and have cysts at the elbow. It can also become injured from repetitive movements.
(Got wrist pain? This is what you need to know about carpal tunnel syndrome.)
Treatments for ulnar nerve pain
Along with home remedies like bracing, special exercises, and taking NSAIDs, some cases that don’t respond to conservative treatment options may require an operation. If you have chronic problems with this nerve, there is a surgery that can move this nerve to the front of your elbow, says Dr. Lee. “It’s a same-day surgery, and we find it helps relieve symptoms,” he says.
However, recovery can take several weeks. Those who are most qualified for this operation have long-term numbness, weakness, tingling, and pain in the ring and small finger. This pain is chronic and not associated with a small, acute bang to the elbow or “funny bone.”
(Here are natural remedies for numbness or tingling associated with peripheral neuropathy.)
When to seek help
While you’re encouraged to call your provider with any question or concern, it’s unlikely that you’ll have to go to the doctor for a run-of-the-mill hit on your funny bone. That said, if you’ve had a traumatic injury involving your elbow, you should absolutely seek help immediately.
If you have persistent numbness and tingling in your ring and small fingers, pain in the inner part of your elbow that gets worse when you bend it, or weakness or a loss of muscle in your hand, see your doctor, advises Dr. Lee.
(Learn more about pain management tips and techniques.)
- Steve Lee, MD, chief of the hand and upper extremity service at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Ulnar Nerve Entrapment at the Elbow (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome)"
- Eric Q Pang, MD, orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand, wrist, and elbow disorders in Seattle