Can you break your funny bone?

March 31, 2015 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • Why hitting the elbow creates such a strange sensation of discomfort -- that then vanishes within moments.

  • Other behavior can lead to experiencing that same unpleasant sensation on an ongoing basis -- a condition called cubital tunnel syndrome.

  • A Providence physical therapist tells us when elbow pain means it’s time to see the doctor and what treatments may be available.

You know the feeling. You hit your funny bone on the edge of a table or the arm of a chair. You feel a sudden, tingling sensation – similar to a mild electric shock. It hurts. It’s annoying. But, is it dangerous? Did you break your funny bone? 

While hitting your funny bone isn’t particularly laugh-worthy, don’t worry. You won’t break it by knocking it on a sharp edge. In fact, the funny thing is, this “comedic” space just inside the curve of your elbow isn’t a bone at all. Within it runs the ulnar nerve that delivers sensations to your fourth and fifth fingers. It also controls some hand movements. The nerve runs down the inside part of your elbow, just beneath the skin. 

The ulnar nerve: such a jokester 

In medical terms, you’ve struck the ulnar nerve against the humerus bone, which isn’t known to be all that witty. The humerus is the long bone that stretches from your elbow to your shoulder. In hitting the nerve, you’ve compressed it against the bone. With hardly any padding to soften the impact, you immediately feel numbness and tingling – and a little pain – shooting through your forearm, hands, and fingers. 

For most of us, a bump to the funny bone elicits an “ouch” or other choice words as we’re on the way from one task to another. The sensation doesn’t last long. You might even laugh it off. And, more importantly, it doesn’t harm your ulnar nerve. 

Cubital tunnel syndrome is no laughing matter 

But, imagine that sensation lasting day and night without relief. Doesn’t seem so funny now, does it? For some people, cubital tunnel syndrome (also known as “tennis elbow” or “golfer’s elbow”) is a chronic, miserable problem. 

It develops when the ulnar nerve is obstructed somewhere along its path near the elbow. Repetitive motions usually cause it – or possibly injury to the elbow or forearm muscle. Other times, the nerve gets pinched or constricted, often when a person is sleeping with their arm at an odd angle. It also can happen when someone is confined to tight quarters: like traveling for hours in a compact car or flying on a long, nonstop flight. 

You can even aggravate the condition by routinely resting your elbow on a desk at work or holding the cell phone to your ear. 

Someone with cubital tunnel syndrome feels that same funny bone sensation – but it doesn’t go away after a few seconds. Repeated constriction of the nerve over a period of time can cause progressive irritation to the nerve. Sometimes, it reoccurs and stays. 

Some report that in addition to the static pain in their arms and hands, they also experience muscle weakness in their forearm and hands. And in rare cases, their pinky and ring finger develop a condition called the “ulnar claw,” where the digits involuntarily curl like a hook. 

Treating the condition 

Thankfully, cubital tunnel syndrome is very treatable. Doctors and physical therapists might prescribe anti-inflammatory medications and patients could have hand therapy, corrective arm posturing exercises and elbow splinting. In severe cases, surgery to provide “elbow room” for the ulnar nerve can reduce pressure and pain. 

If you bump your funny bone occasionally, don’t worry. Just laugh it off. But, if your elbow pain isn’t funny anymore, contact your Providence primary care provider to help you make a plan for treatment.


Find a doctor

Have questions about ongoing or recurring pain? The Providence care team can help. You can find a Providence physician using our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also 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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