The average person in the U.S. spends five hours a day on a mobile device, increasing the cases of trigger finger, texting thumb & carpal tunnel syndrome
Phones have evolved over the years from big rotary dialers to hand-held computers, but the human body has yet to evolve the shape of the hand to match the device. Like most people, I use my phone every day for things like:
- My morning alarm
- Texting friends and family
- Checking emails
- Reading the news
- Checking sports scores (Go Warriors!)
- Connecting on social media
- Listening to podcasts and music
- Taking photos
- Navigating around town
- Reading the latest MOS blog (like you, if you are reading this on your phone).
If your list is anywhere close to mine, it means your smartphone is in your hands for hours from the moment you wake up until you go to bed.
A recent study by Flurry, a mobile analytics company, found that the average American spent five hours a day on a mobile device in the last quarter of 2016. That is up 20 percent from the same time period in 2015, and it’s probably higher for 2017.
If you are even close to these average numbers, it is very likely that you might be experiencing some hand discomfort, whether it is in your thumb, wrist or even your elbow. Smartphone overuse can cause wrist pain because tendons that connect to the thumb can become inflamed at the wrist. Your elbow can also be affected if it is constantly bent holding the phone.
A common injury I see tied to smartphone usage is texting thumb or trigger thumb (also trigger finger), which is a repetitive stress injury known as stenosing tenosynovitis. Nothing is dislocated or broken in the hand, and most of the time there isn’t much inflammation, but it can still annoy the person experiencing it.
We’re not sure this means you’re developing tendonitis or arthritis. But we are sure your body is telling you it needs a break.
I also see some patients with carpal tunnel syndrome (wrist) or cubital tunnel syndrome (elbow) who believe it is due to smartphone use. While there is no single cause of carpal tunnel syndrome or cubital tunnel syndrome, overuse of the related muscles could be a contributing factor. People with previous injuries may be at a higher risk as well.
Another smartphone injury becoming increasingly common with the extra-large smartphones is the “smartphone pinky.” This is when the little finger becomes deformed or dented due to balancing the smartphone with the pinky on the bottom of the phone.
Learn about common hand, finger and wrist pain
Tips for reducing hand pain
Maybe in 2018, a phone company will make an ergonomically designed smartphone that can save all of our hands in the future. But until then, here are some helpful tips to save your hands from smartphone pain.
- Switch hands.
- Limit texting to short messages. For a long message, use voice-to-text, or go old school … a phone call is actually a lot easier.
- Use the swipe feature, allowing you to slide to letters rather than type.
- Take a break and put down your phone, before your hand starts hurting.
- Break up texting or gaming into shorter sessions.
- Stretch your fingers, wrist, and forearms.
- If your hand is hurting, take an over-the-counter pain reliever to reduce swelling and inflammation.
- Place the phone on a table or counter to text using both hands.
- Larger phones are most likely better for the fingers because the fingers have more space to spread out. But the catch is that the larger devices are heavier, so your hand has to support the extra weight and could cause smartphone pinky.
When to seek professional help
Unless numbness, tingling, cramping, and stiffness continue after you put down your phone, you do not need to see a hand specialist. If you are still having symptoms when you are not using your phone, it is time to set up and appointment with me or one of my colleagues who specialize in hand injuries. A hand specialist will be able to look at the symptoms and might perform some tests to determine if you have a repetitive stress injury, carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, smartphone pinky, tendonitis or arthritis.
Schedule an appointment
Treatment for tendonitis, arthritis or nerve damage from stress injuries may call for immobilization, medication or even surgery. Immobilizing the area for a few weeks will let the tendons rest. Medications could be used along with immobilization or on its own. Medication could be an injection or a pill with the goal of reducing inflammation. Surgery is the last option and is uncommon for hand injuries that are caused solely due to mobile phone usage.
In this day and age, it is nearly impossible not to use a mobile phone. But by following my nine tips you can reduce pain and possible temporary or permanent hand damage due to that devilish device.