Funny Bone

Injury to the Ulnar Nerve at the Elbow

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Ever hit your funny bone?

A tap to the right spot behind the elbow, the so-called funny bone, can cause pain and tingling sensations to shoot down your forearm.  People often describe this sensation as an 'electric shock-like' pain typical of an irritated nerve. Usually this is a sharp jolt to the elbow that quickly resolves, but it can also cause more persistent symptoms in some people.

Which Bone Is Funny?

Actually, when you hit your "funny bone," you're not hitting a bone at all.

You are hitting the ulnar nerve as it passes around the back of the elbow. Because the ulnar nerve sits just on top of the hard elbow, and because most people don't have a lot of fatty cushion in that spot, the nerve is prone to being irritated.

The elbow is actually the junction of three bones: the humerus (arm bone), the ulna and the radius (the forearm bones).  The humerus bone has a groove on its inner aspect where the ulnar nerve tightly courses just behind the joint.  This is the location where the ulnar nerve is most often irritated when the nerve is pinched against the end of the bone.

Funny Bone Symptoms

When you hit your funny bone, or to be more correct, the ulnar nerve, you experience pain where the ulnar nerve works: down the forearm and into the ring and small fingers.  This is called the ulnar nerve distribution, and it is the area of the body where the ulnar nerve provides sensation.

  This area is very consistent, meaning just about everyone's ulnar nerve provides sensation to exactly the same parts of the body.  Specifically, the ulnar nerve provides sensation into most of the small (pinky) finger, and about half of the ring finger.  Other nerves supply sensation to other parts of the hand including the median nerve and the radial nerve.

Treatment of Ulnar Nerve Problems

Most injuries to the funny bone quickly resolve.  People generally resort to shaking their forearm and hand until their symptoms go away. Other treatment options include straightening out the elbow (bending the elbow can stretch the nerve), limiting mobility of the elbow, and steps to decrease inflammation. Inflammation can be decreased by consuming oral anti-inflammatory medications, applying ice to the elbow, and other alternative and natural treatments.

In rare circumstances, injuries to the ulnar nerve can cause more persistent symptoms, a condition called cubital tunnel syndrome.  In these situations, patients may benefit from the use of a splint worn at night.  Most often these splints are fabricated by an occupational or hand therapist, or you can order a standard sized splint online. If symptoms become more long-lasting, then a surgical procedure can be considered to relieve pressure and tension on the ulnar nerve. The procedures either decompress the nerve by locating any tight constrictions around the nerve and releasing these, or in more severe cases the nerve can actually be repositioned to an area without as much pressure on the nerve (called an ulnar nerve transposition).

The good news, is that almost all people can find resolution with simpler, nonsurgical treatment! So the funny part of the "funny bone" is that it's not a bone at all...


Elhassan B and Steinmann SP "Entrapment Neuropathy of the Ulnar Nerve" J Am Acad Orthop Surg November 2007 vol. 15 no. 11 672-681.

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