What to Know About Your Funny Bone

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 17, 2023
5 min read

If you've ever hit the inside of your elbow on something, it may have felt kind of funny. That's how the funny bone got its name. However, the funny bone isn't a bone at all.

The funny bone is a nerve that runs along the outside of your elbow. It is called the ulnar nerve. When it bangs or rubs up against your humerus, one of the bones in your upper arms, it creates the strange burning or tingling sensation from which it gets its name.

Why does this feel different than other bumps and bruises? Most of the time, when you get an injury, the nerves near the damaged area send pain signals to your brain, letting you know that something is wrong. Your body tries to get you to stop the painful activity or to remove yourself from a harmful situation. But when a nerve is stimulated directly, it gets irritated, causing a different type of pain.

Nerve pain feels more like electricity, burning, stinging, or tingling.

The ulnar nerve is one of the three major nerves in your arm. It starts from your armpit, moving through your arms to your hands. When it reaches the elbow joint, it goes through a small tunnel of tissues called the cubital tunnel. 

The ulnar nerve is necessary for hand function and movement and allows you to feel sensations like pain and heat. The nerve is protected by muscle or fat for most of its length. But the section that's right behind the bony bump of your elbow is exposed, leaving it vulnerable to bumping into things. At this location, the nerve is protected only by the cubital tunnel, but not fat or muscle. This is the longest section of somewhat exposed nerve in the entire body.

People have two different theories on why it's called the funny bone. First, the nerve pain is activated when the nerve rubs against the humerus bone, which runs from your shoulder to your elbow. The word humerus is a homophone of humorous, meaning the two words sound alike. Humorous means funny, so some believe funny bone could be a play on words.

The second theory is simply that when you hit it, it feels funny, so people used that word for the name.

Besides being used to describe that strange sensation you feel when you hit it, the term funny bone has also come to mean someone's sense of humor. When you hear a joke that really made you laugh, you might say "that tickled my funny bone." When people use it as an idiom, they're usually imagining a fake bone that helps you make others laugh.

This phrase has become part of our popular culture. You might have seen quotes about the importance of having a funny bone, meaning a sense of humor. In the popular kid's game, Operation, players must remove a funny bone, among other silly imagined body parts, from the patient with tweezers without touching the electrified game board.

If you bump your funny bone, chances are, you won't even need an ice pack. The nerve pain usually disappears almost immediately after the bump. Since your funny bone is not actually a bone, you can't break it.

However, there is a more serious funny bone injury from which it may take some more time to recover. 

Ulnar nerve entrapment, also called cubital tunnel syndrome, occurs when you regularly put too much pressure on your ulnar nerve by leaning on your upper elbow. You can also get ulnar nerve entrapment from putting pressure further down on your wrists, like when you ride a bike. Bending and snapping your elbow frequently, like when playing golf or tennis, can also lead to ulnar nerve injury.

Some people have anatomy that makes them more prone to this condition, whether or not they perform repetitive motions. In these people, the ulnar nerve moves over the bony bump of the elbow repeatedly, leading to compression. This is common. Experts estimate that about 16% of children and teenagers have ulnar nerve movement regularly. 

Cubital tunnel syndrome has increased in recent years because more people bend their arms for long periods while texting and using their phones.

Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome

Ulnar nerve entrapment symptoms include:

  • Weakness in your hand
  • Tingling, especially in your fourth or fifth fingers
  • Tender feeling in your elbow and hand
  • Sensitivity to cold in your hand

People typically get this condition in their dominant arm. If you're right-handed, you're more likely to get ulnar nerve entrapment in your right arm.

Your doctor can diagnose this condition with tests such as an electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction study (NCS) to find out how well your nerves are working. Imaging tests such as an MRI or an ultrasound may also help with the diagnosis.

Ulnar nerve entrapment treatment

Your doctor may first recommend nonsurgical treatments, which include physical therapy, over-the-counter pain relievers, and an elbow splint. 

If those don't help with your ulnar nerve entrapment symptoms, you may need surgery. The surgery for ulnar nerve entrapment can be done at the wrist or elbow, depending on the site of your entrapment. Your surgeon will make an incision (small cut) and decompress the nerve. If your surgery is at the elbow, your surgeon may also move the nerve to a more protected location in your elbow.

Other names for ulnar nerve entrapment include:

  • Guyon's canal syndrome
  • Tardy ulnar palsy

Normally, hitting your ulnar nerve isn't a cause for concern. The nerve pain should quickly go away on its own. If you have arm tingling after texting a lot or having your arm bent for a long time, straighten your arm to allow blood flow and sensation to return to normal. However, if your pain or tingling doesn't go away or comes and goes on a regular basis, it may be time to contact your doctor.

Hitting your funny bone is nothing more than a brief and inconvenient feeling for most people. But if you often have constant funny bone pain, burning, tingling, or any other uncomfortable sensation,  see a doctor about it.