It’s rare to see an adult without a smartphone in their hands these days. These handy devices are with us from the moment we get up until we go to bed. Our phones wake us up, remind us of appointments, enable us to connect with friends and family, and more.
However, many people are reporting discomfort or pain in their hands, fingers, and neck after using their smartphone or tablet. Is our growing reliance on smartphones injuring our hands?
How Do Smartphones Contribute to Overuse Injuries?
Many orthopedic specialists are noticing an increase in overuse injuries to our hands, wrists, thumbs, elbows, and neck related to the increasing use of smartphones and tablets.
This increase isn’t surprising, given that many people use their smartphones for over 3 hours every day. Add in all the other daily activities we use our hands for, and the result is a lot of use for those small bones, tendons, and muscles.
Additionally, the larger size of newer smartphones may also be contributing to hand strain. Many people use their phone with only one hand. The increasing width of newer phones can make it hard for people to hold the phone while texting with their thumb. As a result, their hand and thumb can become strained as they stretch to press hard-to-reach buttons.
Newer smartphones and tablets also are heavier, which can lead to discomfort when we hold a device in one hand for long periods.
Our posture, when holding our devices, may be contributing to our pain. For instance, people tend to hold their phone in the same position (or awkward positions) for extended periods, such as taking selfies or holding their phone at the same angle while watching videos. We often hold our phones and tablets down low, which causes us to look down at the screen for long periods. Some people may end up slumping or hunching their backs, as well.
What Are Common Smartphone-Related Overuse Injuries?
Smartphone overuse injuries can impact your hands, fingers, thumbs, and wrists. Additionally, people experience pain in their necks and elbows. The most common symptoms related to smartphone and tablet overuse are discomfort, numbing, tingling, throbbing, or pain.
Please see our article “Finding The Best Phone Grip Style For You” to help with issues related to holding your phone.
Hand Strain and Text Claw
Some common signs of hand strain related to smartphone use include general discomfort, pain, numbness, or tingling. People also report having text claw. While this isn’t a medical term, it’s a pain and stiffness in your wrist and hand, like cramps, after extended smartphone use. Text claw can lead to tendonitis, which is when your tendons get inflamed or irritated.
If you use your thumb to text, you may have experienced pain or discomfort after texting for long periods. Additionally, pressing and tapping your thumb repeatedly on the screen can also cause pain over time.
Our thumbs aren’t designed for constant and repetitive movements. You may have trigger thumb, also called stenosing tenosynovitis, if you feel pain when you bend or straighten it or if it locks up.
Trigger thumb (or finger) is more likely to occur with repetitive gripping and bending actions, like texting. Additionally, pressing the buttons on your screen too hard can also increase the risk of inflammation surrounding your tendons and lead to trigger thumb.
De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis
Another common smartphone injury related to overusing your thumb is De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis. In this condition, pain courses from the base of your thumb into the side of your wrist. The pain is due to inflamed tendons that rub against the narrow tunnel they pass through. Some people will experience the pain traveling up their forearm.
If you suspect you have this condition, you should talk to your doctor. While sometimes this can be treated successfully with home remedies, this condition can require a splint or physical therapy to help treat it. If other treatments fail, surgery may be needed.
Do you find yourself looking down when you are using your phone? If yes, you’re not alone. Most users hold their phones low and look down while using it, whether they are standing or sitting. Unfortunately, this throws off our posture and can lead to Tech Neck.
Cell Phone Elbow
If you hold your phone with your elbow bent for long periods, you might experience Cell phone elbow. Medically, cell phone elbow is called cubital tunnel syndrome, which is due to pressure or stretching on the ulnar nerve. The result is typically numbness, weakness, or tingling in your ring and small fingers or pain in your forearm or elbow. Smartphone use isn’t the only cause of this condition, and sometimes other problems, such as a pinched nerve in your back, can mimic this syndrome.
Why Doesn’t Everyone Have an Overuse Injury?
Fortunately, not everyone who uses a smartphone ends up with an overuse injury. It may be that some people are more prone to these conditions. For instance, some people may have a narrower cubital tunnel that makes them more likely to experience problems when performing certain repetitive tasks.
However, whether you’re more prone to an overuse injury or not, it makes sense to incorporate strategies to help minimize potential future problems.
How Do You Prevent Overuse Injuries Due to Smartphone and Tablet Use?
Fortunately, these overuse injuries can be avoided and typically are easy to treat, especially if you take action to alleviate the pain when symptoms first start to arise.
Use Your Phone Less
One of the best techniques is to use your phone less. However, this isn’t always practical, especially for people who use their phone for work. Try these strategies to give your smartphone hand a break.
Use Your Other Hand
Use your phone with your other hand. At first, it may feel awkward, but give your phone hand and thumb a break by holding your phone in your other hand. As a bonus, you’ll be challenging your brain when you do the tasks with your other hand. This technique can also improve that hand’s dexterity.
Use a Smartphone Grip
Use a smartphone grip that allows you to cradle the phone in your hand instead of trying to stretch your hand around your phone. A smartphone grip is especially helpful if you have a newer, wider phone. Using a grip can make it easier to reach buttons without having to strain your finger or thumb. It also can help you hold your wrist straighter and in a more neutral position, which can help prevent pain or soreness.
To Avoid Elbow Pain
To avoid pain in your elbow, support your elbow on a comfortable surface or use a selfie stick. This strategy can help prevent you from bending your elbow in an uncomfortable position for long periods.
Use Hands-free Options
Use hands-free options when possible. Going hands-free allows you to give your hands, elbow, and neck a break from your phone.
When texting or using your phone screen, don’t press your finger or thumb down so hard. Using a light touch can help minimize putting too much pressure on your nerves. You can also try using the edge of your finger or nail instead of your fingertip to avoid pressing on the nerve.
Set it Down on a Surface
Instead of holding your smartphone, set it down on a surface. This will give your elbow and hand a break.
Take Breaks from Texting with Your Thumb
Take breaks from texting with your thumb and use a different finger or your other hand. Using your thumb less frequently to text will decrease your risk for a repetitive use injury.
Use Good Posture
Use good posture when using your phone. Sitting up straight makes you less likely to put your elbow or wrist in an unusual or painful angle.
Hold or Place Smartphone Devices at Eye Level
Hold or place devices at eye level. To prevent slouching or bending your neck for long periods, hold your phone at or close to eye level, so your eyes are parallel to the floor.
Perform Hand and Wrist Stretches
Perform hand and wrist stretches. Stretches for the hand and fingers can help prevent overuse injuries. Be sure to follow instructions and perform the stretches slowly and carefully. Consult with your doctor first to determine the best stretches for you.
Take a Break
If you’re feeling discomfort or pain while using your phone, take a break. Listen to your body. By taking a break, you can help reduce the chance of a repetitive use injury.
When Do You Need To See a Doctor?
If your symptoms quit after you stop using your phone, then you likely don’t need to see a doctor or hand specialist. That said, it’s important to determine why the pain was occurring, so you can incorporate new strategies or habits to avoid the pain from reoccurring in the future.
If the pain, numbing, cramping, or other symptoms occur when you are not using your smartphone, then consider talking to your doctor. Discussing your symptoms is important since your pain may also be due to other problems such as arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. It may be that your smartphone isn’t the cause of the underlying problem, but exacerbating an issue. That said, a doctor will be able to determine the cause and help provide your treatment options.
Using Your Phone Thoughtfully Can Help Prevent Overuse Injuries
Smartphones play an integral part in our daily lives. We depend on our phones to help us succeed at various tasks for both our personal and work lives. Our phones also help us stay connected with friends and families. Therefore, incorporating strategies to minimize overuse injuries is important, so we can continue to get the most out of our phones while staying healthy.