You can’t break your funny bone, but small stress fractures can happen to anyone

May 9, 2018 Providence Health Team

[3 MIN READ] 

In this article: 

  • Whacking your funny bone may feel like you've broken something, but it's a type of temporary nerve compression.

  • Providence physicians say not to ignore funny bone pain or any other pain that persists, and to see your doctor.

  • Actual stress fractures in small bones can heal within weeks if treated appropriately.

 

You swivel, reach and — ow! — hit the corner of your chair with your elbow. Whoever called it a funny bone, anyway?

Maybe we mashed together those two words — funny and bone — to reflect the painful truth that it feels for a minute as if we’ve broken an elbow bone, but, ha!, not really. It never seems that funny in the moment, though.

What happens when you hit your so-called funny bone is that you’ve pressed the ulnar nerve against the hard surface of the humerus bone, which runs from your shoulder to your elbow. The sudden compression sends a tingling shard of pain through your arm, but, as we all know, it passes in moments with no lasting effects.

When funny bone pain persists

But the passing pain of smacking your funny bone is related to a more serious, persistent problem called cubital tunnel syndrome. You may know it as “tennis elbow.”

Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve is persistently compressed or restricted, whether from repetitive motion or from being kept in an unnatural position, such as during sleep. In such situations, the pain can be chronic and the sufferer can be miserable.

The good news is the condition is highly treatable, often by simple hand therapy exercises and sometimes, medication. To learn more, read "Can you break your funny bone?". 

Managing small stress fractures

The problem of tennis elbow — a nerve compression that might be caused by the repetitive motion of hitting a forehand shot over and over — leads to another category of small, but painful problems.

Stress fractures often occur in athletes, though they can happen to anyone. They may be caused by repetitive, taxing motion, such as running on a hard surface, or by an acute injury, such as a fall.

The Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine notes, “Stress fractures account for between 1% and 20% of athletic injuries, with 80% of stress fractures in the lower extremity.” These could include the big toe, the metatarsal or other bones of the feet and ankles. Such fractures occur when the bone can no longer absorb the impact from running or other activity and develops a small crack. While it is not as severe an injury as a complete break of the bone, a stress fracture is painful and interferes with a person’s ability to continue to exercise.

The good news is that most cases are managed conservatively — by taking weight off the fractured bone, as with crutches, immobilizing the injured area and allowing the bone to heal itself. Depending on the location of the fracture, a person can usually return to weight-bearing activities in three to 12 weeks. 

However, there is a small category of higher-risk stress fractures that can limit blood flow or progress to complete fractures. These require more active treatment, sometimes including surgery. 

Find a doctor

When you have something more lasting than a momentary “funny bone” problem, such as pain that doesn’t go away and interferes with your normal activities, you should discuss it with a health care provider.  If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

 

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