Is cell phone elbow the new carpal tunnel syndrome?
Lately it seems like everywhere you go, people have adopted the same physical posture: head down, shoulders slumped, thumbs scrolling. In the past decade we have become a population that is obsessed with our digital devices.
Automobile accidents caused by texting drivers aren’t the only cause of injury that can be attributed to technology. Overuse of any part of our bodies can wear it down, and thumbs, elbows and shoulders are feeling the pain from our digital obsession.
Brian Najarian, MD, a hand surgeon at Cape Cod Orthopaedics has treated patients with injuries caused by digital devices. He said overuse of any body part can cause problems, and hands are no exception.
“If you spend 15 hours a day on your computer or 10 hours a day texting, there are potentially going to be some impacts on your health,” he said. “You’re not going to wake up one day with your thumb broken or your tendon ruptured, but all of a sudden you may start having wrist pain and overuse of devices may have been a factor in how that developed over time.”
Many Problems Can Arise
One of the most common injuries that develops from overuse of the hands is carpal tunnel syndrome. It is a peripheral nerve entrapment that is basically a pinched nerve.
A similar problem that can happen to elbows is called cubital nerve syndrome, colloquially dubbed “cell phone elbow.”
“What usually causes cubital nerve syndrome is holding a cell phone up to the ear and flexing the elbow,” Dr. Najarian said. “Patients will notice that after they’ve been on their cell phone for ten minutes their fingers go numb.”
De Quervain’s tendonitis is another painful ailment that people can get from overuse of their hands. It causes tenderness and swelling near the base of the thumb and makes pinching and grasping difficult.
“Trigger finger is also a common condition,” Dr. Najarian said. “The tendon that flexes the finger gets inflamed and the tendon passes through a pulley system, kind of like fishing line does on a fishing rod. If it gets inflamed often enough, it will form a little nodule and that nodule gets stuck in the pulley system when it tries to glide back and forth.”
The result is that the finger gets stuck in the bent position.
When it comes to digital injuries, Dr. Najarian said that neck problems are probably even more common than hand ones. Constantly looking down puts a lot of pressure on the cervical spine. It can cause problems that range from muscular strain in the short term to possible arthritis after many years.
What You Can Do
Dr. Najarian’s first advice to patients is to try to avoid positions that provoke these conditions. He recommends taking frequent breaks and using certain devices to prevent injury. He offered the following tips to prevent injury:
- Ergonomic keyboards can protect fingers and wrists.
- Bluetooth headphones can protect elbows.
- Switching hands while talking on the phone reduces stress.
- Software apps like Swype that use a virtual keyboard you swipe can help cut down on tapping individual keys.
- Place tablets or cellphones in holders and make sure your posture is good to reduce neck strain.
- If you already have early signs of pain from overuse, braces, ice, and over the counter anti-inflammatories like Motrin or Advil can help ease symptoms.
- For certain injuries, cortisone injections or physical therapy may help.
Surgery is the last stop, but the good news is that for conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital nerve syndrome and trigger finger, the surgeries are relatively easy outpatient procedures that can usually be done in five to 10 minutes. Incisions are much smaller than they were in the past and because of that patients’ downtime from work is minimal unless they do manual labor.
While it’s hard to point solely to cell phones as a cause of problems, Dr. Najarian said that any repetitive task can cause strain and eventually injury if done long or often enough.
“In general most of these are chronic overuse types of injuries that are preventable if you do your best to minimize the impact over time,” he said.