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.
Funny Bone Facts: What Is the Funny Bone?
The funny bone is actually 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 dangerous situation. However, when a nerve is stimulated directly, the actual nerve is irritated, causing a different type of pain.
Nerve pain feels more like electricity, burning, stinging, or tingling.
Where Is the Funny Bone?
The ulnar nerve runs all the way from your neck to your pinky finger. The nerve gives your pinky and ring fingers sensation and helps you grip things. The nerve is protected by muscle or fat for most of its length. However, the section that is right behind the bony bump of your elbow is uniquely exposed, leaving it vulnerable to bumping into things. At this location, the nerve is protected only by the tunnel of tissue called the cubital tunnel, but not fat or muscle. This is the longest section of somewhat exposed nerve in the entire body.
Why Is it Called the Funny Bone?
People have two different theories on why it is called the funny bone. First, the nerve pain is activated when the nerve rubs against the humerus bone, a bone that 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 the term funny bone could be a play on words.
The second theory is simply that when you hit it, it feels kind of funny, so people used that word for the name.
Can You Break Your Funny Bone?
If you bump your funny bone, chances are, you won't even need an ice pack. Once the stimulus is removed, the nerve pain usually goes away. Since your funny bone is not actually a bone, it's not possible to break your funny bone.
However, there is a more serious funny bone injury from which it may take some more time to recover.
Ulnar Nerve Entrapment
Ulnar nerve entrapment 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 bicycle. Bending and snapping your elbow frequently, like when playing golf or tennis can also lead to ulnar nerve injury.
Some people have anatomy that lends itself 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 anatomy is common. Experts estimate that about 16% of children & teenagers have ulnar nerve movement regularly.
Diagnoses of this condition have increased in recent years because of an increase in people bending their arms for long periods of time while texting and using their phones.
Symptoms of this condition 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. So, if you are right-handed, you are more likely to get ulnar nerve entrapment in your right arm.
Your doctor will 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.
Your doctor may first recommend non-surgical treatments which include physical therapy, over-the-counter pain relievers, and an elbow splint.
If those do not help, then surgery may be required. The surgery for ulnar nerve entrapment can be done at the wrist or elbow, depending on the site of your entrapment. The surgeon makes an incision and decompresses the nerve. If your surgery is at the elbow, the 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
- Cubital tunnel syndrome
The Funny Bone as an Everyday Phrase
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." So, when people use it as an idiom, they are usually imagining a fake bone that helps you to generate humor.
This phrase has permeated our popular culture. There are many quotes that speak to 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.
What To Do if Your Funny Bone Hurts or Tingles
Normally, hitting your ulnar nerve isn't a cause for concern. Nerve pain usually dissipates quickly after hitting your funny bone with no intervention. If you have arm tingling after texting a lot or having your arm bent for a long period of time, straighten your arm to allow blood flow and sensation to come back 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.