10 Things You Might Not Know About the Elbow


The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

Unless you bang your funny bone or regularly play tennis, it's unlikely you spend a lot of time thinking about your elbow. But without this crucial joint, many daily activities would be impossible, explains Anand Murthi, attending orthopedic surgeon and chief of shoulder and elbow surgery at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital, in Baltimore, Maryland.


The elbow may seem small, but it requires three bones to make its simple hinging action possible. The humerus is a long bone that runs from the shoulder socket to the radius and ulna. (And yes, there's a school of thought that believes your "funny bone"—actually your ulnar nerve—is named as a play on the word humorous.) The radius is one of the two forearm bones, running down from the elbow to the thumb side of the wrist. Lastly, the ulna stretches away from the pinkie side of the wrist. Thanks to those three bones, your arm can hinge—making it possible to do a bicep curl, lift a bag, or rotate your hand.


The bones of the elbow are connected by numerous tendons and ligaments, including the ulnar collateral ligament, a fibrous tissue that connects the humerus to the forearm bones. This tendon is both important and vulnerable. When it ruptures or tears, you feel severe pain and can sometimes even see bruising on the inside of your arm. It's a surprisingly common sports injury, plaguing players of baseball, football, ice hockey, and golf. The other major ligament in the joint is called the radial collateral ligament. Located on the outside of the elbow, it prevents excessive extension of the elbow, and is less prone to injury.


At the lower end of the humerus are two rounded protrusions called epicondyles, which flare out from the bone. This is where muscles attach. The upper end of the ulna also has two protrusions, called the olecranon—which forms the pointy part of the elbow—and the caronoid process, a projection from the front of the ulna. Bone fractures, especially in children, often occur at these epicondyles, and are the most common short-term injuries of the elbow. Certain kinds of arthritis, especially in older patients with osteoarthritis, can also cause such severe degeneration here that an elbow replacement is necessary. (Since bones become more brittle as we age, it's wise to take steps to prevent falling or stumbling, as elbows are among the most likely casualties.)


Children love the thrill of a jump on the trampoline, but Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon in Austin, Texas, tells Mental Floss that she sees numerous fractures around the elbow in kids from doing just that. It's so common to break elbows and wrists this way, the American Board of Pediatrics warns against trampolines.


But the major muscles involved in bending your arm are the triceps—on the back of your arm—and biceps, on the front of your arm. Your many smaller flexor and extensor muscles allow you to move your wrists and fingers and rotate your forearm.


One of the most common conditions of the elbow is called "tennis elbow"—or lateral epicondylitis. Tennis players are prone to it, but it can be caused by any repetitive bending and flexing of the elbow, says Bergin. It's a painful degeneration of the tendons that attach to the bone on the outside of the elbow. It's so common, she says, "I probably see tennis elbow every day in my office." If the condition should strike you, Bergin says, "It's critical to stop doing whatever hurts. It will not get better if you continue to participate in whatever activity is causing pain." Full and total healing is required before you can return to the activities that gave you the condition in the first place.


When major league pitcher Tommy John injured his ulnar collateral ligament in 1974, his doctor opted to try a unique surgery to replace the deteriorated ligament with a tendon from somewhere else. Though the surgery can require a full year's recovery time—in Tommy John's case, it was nearly two and a half years and two surgeries—it's since become a time-tested method to repair this damaged ligament. Murthi tells Mental Floss, "New research on repairing the medial collateral ligament (versus reconstructing it) may lead to earlier recovery for Tommy John surgery. Also new treatments for articular cartilage damage, ligament reconstruction, and joint sparing techniques are evolving."


The elbow's close proximity to important blood vessels and nerves in your hand and arm make it a challenge to perform surgery on, Murthi says: "Careful, precise surgery is required to provide a good outcome. Often, rehabilitation with a skilled therapist is crucial to a good recovery." Currently, many operations are performed arthroscopically, so that surgeons can see all the various components as they make delicate maneuvers.


Should you have the misfortune of losing part of an arm, it's better to lose the parts below the elbow, Bergin says. This helps you maintain a range of motion and allows you to better manipulate a prosthesis. Fortunately, upper extremity amputations are rare and almost always result from accidents, as compared to lower arm amputations, which are often caused by some form of vascular disease.


While you may be tempted to read that latest hefty bestseller late into the night, if you're keeping your elbows bent in a sitting position for too long, you can get a case of ulnar neuritis, inflammation of the ulnar nerve—which can lead to numbness or weakness of the fingers and hand. Bergin warns, "It's much more common now than it used to be because we sit around for hours at a time on our phones." If you experience a "little tingly feeling in the pinky and fourth finger," she says, you've probably got a case. Her recommendation is to take as many breaks with your arms straight out as you can. Switch to a kindle or laptop that you can prop up to read at night. Be conscious of your ergonomics when you drive, type, and use your electronics.

Why Can You Sometimes See Your Breath?

Chalabala/iStock via Getty Images
Chalabala/iStock via Getty Images

The human body is made up of about 60 percent water, meaning that when we breathe, we don’t just exhale carbon dioxide—we also exhale a certain amount of water vapor.

Water molecules need a lot of energy in order to remain in a gaseous form. When the warm water vapor molecules from your lungs reach colder air, they condense into “tiny droplets of liquid water and ice,” according to Wonderopolis. In fact, this process of condensation is also how clouds are formed.

But it’s actually relative humidity, not just temperature, that determines whether you can see your breath. The water vapor in your breath condenses into a liquid when it hits dew point—the temperature at which the air is saturated and can’t hold any more water in gas form. Since cold air can’t hold as much water vapor as warm air, you're much more likely to see your breath on a chilly day, but that's not always the case.

On more humid days, you may be able to see your breath even when it’s relatively warm outside. That’s because the air is already more saturated, making the dew point higher. And on especially dry days, even if it's cold outside, you may not be able to see your breath at all. Dry, unsaturated air can hold more water vapor, so you can huff and puff without seeing any evidence of it at all.

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7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.