The effects of smartphones on our fingers, hands, and elbows

Smartphones. We hear a lot about how these handy devices can come along with us wherever we go. They keep us connected, informed, and entertained. We love them — probably because they do what the advertisers promise.

There’s a flip side, though. Isn’t there always? It’s not so much the phone that can create problems for your hands, fingers, and elbows. It’s more about how you hold your smartphone and how often you use it that puts a strain on your nerves and tendons.

Smartphone elbow

This is not a new phenomenon, and it’s certainly not confined to smartphone use. More traditionally known as cubital tunnel syndrome, it affects the ulnar (funny bone) nerve, which runs through a small groove (cubital tunnel) located on your inner elbow. Symptoms of this disorder include tingling and numbness in the fourth and fifth finger of the affected arm. You may also note pain in your forearm and weakness in your hand.

Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when pressure at the elbow causes compression, irritation, and inflammation of the ulnar nerve. Phone activity that can irritate the nerve includes bending your elbow sharply for long periods as you hold a phone to your ear or resting your elbows on a desk, the arm of a chair, or other hard surface as you talk, text, or game.

 

You can lessen or even prevent smartphone elbow by changing your phone habits. Try a hands-free headset, or switch your phone from hand-to-hand for conversations and avoid positions that require you to rest your elbows on hard surfaces when using your phone.

If you’re already experiencing symptoms, we at Barrington Orthopedic Specialists offer a variety of effective nonsurgical treatments that alleviate your discomfort and calm your stressed nerve, including massage, exercises designed to relieve pressure on your ulnar nerve, and other physical therapy modalities.

When you’re all thumbs

Thumbs are vital to the human anatomy. They work fine for grasping and pinching, but they’re simply not designed to move with the same grace and flexibility as the rest of your fingers. The demands placed on your thumb muscles and tendons with heavy texting can cause micro tears in these soft tissue structures. This can lead to pain, swelling, and stiffness in the thumb itself and the structures in the palm that control your thumb’s movement.

Give your thumbs a rest by using an external keyboard that gets all your fingers involved when you’re texting at home or otherwise not out and about. Or, while It may slow you down at first, try texting with your index fingers. Even simpler, consider using a voice-to-text app whenever possible.

Carpal tunnel syndrome and smartphones

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) develops from compression of the median nerve, which runs through a narrow opening on the palm side of your wrist (the carpal tunnel). Symptoms include pain in the hand; tingling and numbness in your fingers that often worsens at night; and weakness in your grip strength.

The jury is still out regarding how much you have to text, swipe, and click on your smartphone before increasing your risk of developing CTS. It is known, however, that repetitive motions such as typing, painting, or hammering can increase your risk, especially when you’re prone to the syndrome due to the structure of your wrists or a previous injury that might have narrowed your carpal tunnel.

Nonsurgical treatments for CTS may include bracing to keep your wrist from bending up or down, steroid injections to reduce inflammation, and exercises that lessen the stress on the affected nerve. Practical steps to take at home include reducing phone time and other activities that worsen symptoms. 

If you have discomfort, tingling, numbness or weakness in your upper extremities, you don’t have to live with it — regardless of what’s causing the symptoms. We have highly skilled experts on staff who specialize in issues and treatments related to your fingers, hands, wrists, and elbows.

 

Schedule a visit today with one of our Barrington Orthopedic hand and upper extremity specialists — Dr. Matthew Bernstein, Dr. Mark Yaffe, or Dr. Gabriel Merlin.

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