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Which bone is the smallest?

The human body contains 206 bones that provide structure, protect organs, allow movements, store minerals and produce blood cells. These bones come in different shapes and sizes. When looking at the size of bones, the smallest bone in the human body is the stirrup bone located in the inner ear. The stirrup bone, also known as the stapes, is only 2.8 mm long and weighs approximately 2.8 mg. This tiny bone has an important role in transferring sound from the eardrum to the inner ear. Understanding the smallest bone in the human body provides insight into the intricate structures within the ear that allow us to hear.

Anatomy of the Ear

To understand why the stirrup bone is the smallest, it is helpful to first look at the basic anatomy of the ear. The ear is divided into three main parts: the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear.

Outer Ear

The visible part of the ear is called the pinna or auricle. This is composed of cartilage and skin. Sound waves enter through the ear canal and cause vibrations of the eardrum or tympanic membrane, marking the border between the outer and middle ear.

Middle Ear

The eardrum separates the outer ear from the middle ear. The middle ear is an air-filled chamber behind the eardrum that contains three tiny bones called ossicles. The three ossicles are the malleus (hammer), incus (anvil) and stapes (stirrup). These bones work together to amplify and transmit sound vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear. Of these three middle ear bones, the stapes is the smallest.

Inner Ear

The stirrup bone connects to the oval window of the inner ear. Vibrations cause fluid in the cochlea of the inner ear to move, which stimulates hair cells and allows electrical signals to be sent to the brain via the auditory nerve. Delicate structures within the inner ear convert vibrations into nerve impulses that are perceived by the brain as sound.

Details About the Stirrup Bone

Now that the basic anatomy of the ear has been reviewed, what makes the stirrup bone so small? Here are more details about this tiny structure:

  • It is the smallest individual bone in the human body.
  • It is only 2.8 mm in length.
  • It weighs approximately 2.8 mg.
  • It is shaped like a stirrup which led to its name.
  • Its anatomical name is the stapes.
  • It is one of the ossicles or bones of the middle ear.
  • It transfers vibrations from the incus to the oval window of the inner ear.
  • It is necessary for hearing.

To visualize just how small 2.8 mm is, the stirrup bone is shorter than a grain of rice or about the thickness of a paperclip wire. Here is an image comparing the size of the stapes to a grain of rice:

Development of the Stirrup Bone

The stirrup bone forms during embryonic development. It originates from the cartilaginous precursor of the skull known as the otic capsule. Ossification or bone formation begins during the fourth month of fetal growth. The stapes continues to develop after birth and ossifies completely within the first few years of life.

The diminutive size of the stapes arises during development in utero. Genetic and environmental factors influence ossification and growth of the stirrup bone, leading to its petite stature compared to other bones. Understanding normal development of the smallest bone allows for recognition of abnormalities that may impair hearing later in life.

Unique Structure of the Stirrup Bone

The stirrup bone has a special shape perfectly designed for its function. Here are the parts that make up this unique structure:

  • Head – Oval-shaped top that attaches to the incus.
  • Neck – Narrow section leading from the head.
  • Branches – Two arms extending from the neck.
  • Base – Flat bottom between the branches attaching to the inner ear.

The stout neck supporting the wider head allows the stirrup bone to pivot and move when the incus pushes on it. Meanwhile, the flat base provides a broad surface to transmit these vibrations to the fluid-filled inner ear. This special shape makes the stapes ideal for picking up and passing along auditory signals.

Function of the Stirrup Bone

Although it is the smallest bone in the body, the stirrup plays a crucial role in hearing:

  • It acts as a lever to transfer vibrations from the incus to the inner ear.
  • It amplifies vibrations by concentrating sound pressure at the oval window.
  • It allows sound waves to move from the air-filled middle ear to the fluid-filled inner ear.
  • It enables conversion of vibrations into nerve signals that travel to the brain.

Without the stirrup bone, hearing would be diminished or impaired. Any damage or deformity can significantly impact its auditory function.

Clinical Relevance

Due to its small size but important purpose, problems with the stapes bone can result in medical issues:

  • Otosclerosis – Abnormal bone growth that immobilizes the stapes and leads to conductive hearing loss. This is commonly treated with stapedectomy surgery to restore hearing.
  • Congenital malformation – Birth defect resulting in malformation of the stapes.
  • Fractures – Rare traumatic breakage of the fragile stapes.
  • Osteosclerosis – Calcification of the stapes that limits movement.

Assessing the stirrup bone is crucial when evaluating hearing disorders. Imaging tests like CT scans allow doctors to visualize stapes abnormalities. Understanding conditions affecting the smallest ossicle is key for proper diagnosis and management of auditory problems.


In summary, the smallest bone in the human body is the stirrup bone or stapes in the middle ear. It measures just 2.8 mm long but has an important role in hearing. This tiny structure acts as a lever and amplifier to transfer vibrations to the inner ear that are perceived as sound. While diminutive in size, diseases of the stapes can significantly impact the function of this vital auditory bone. Knowledge of the anatomy, development and purpose of the stapes provides a deeper appreciation for the intricate structures required for normal hearing.