Spending too much time using your phone without taking a break may put you at risk for “smartphone thumb” or "texting thumb" injury.
It had to happen at some point. You probably know that repetitive motion may cause hand injuries. It makes sense that constant smartphone use could result in injuries as well.
If you’re one of those people who has your smartphone in your hand constantly, you may want to rethink it: You could be risking a "smartphone thumb" or "texting thumb" injury.
What is smartphone thumb or texting thumb?
In one case study, a team of San Diego doctors describe chronic left thumb pain and loss of motion in a 29-year-old man who played the game Candy Crush constantly — as in all day for six to eight weeks.
He ended up needing surgery for a torn tendon in his thumb. While the extent of his injury from smartphone use is unusual, it does drive home in a painful way that excessive smartphone use has its downside.
Of interest in the case was that the man said he had no pain in his thumb when he was playing the game, which the authors say may be a case of video games reducing pain perception.
More research needs to be done
“Research might also consider whether pain reduction is a reason some individuals play video games excessively, manifest addiction, or sustain injuries associated with video gaming,” the case report authors said.
There has been relatively little research on repetitive motion thumb injuries, and the candy crush injury was obviously a cae of excessive overuse. Yet various doctors’ observations based on patients they treat indicate they are on the rise.
A UK-based survey by a cellphone service provider did find that two in five Brits have had discomfort or pain in their thumbs over a five-year period. More than half said they had “thumb fatigue” when using smartphones.
About 64 percent of Americans have smartphones, an increase of 29 percent in just four years, according to the Pew Research Center.
Robert Wysocki, MD, a hand, wrist, and elbow specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says many patients report that joint or tendon problems have developed or worsened after repetitive computer or smartphone use.
“What people call `texting thumb’ is not a clearly defined condition, but it usually refers to one of two things,” Wysocki says.
The first is trigger thumb, a construction of a flexor tendon in the thumb that can develop from repetitive gripping motions such as texting or holding a smartphone.
Arthritis of the carpometacarpal joint, where the thumb connects to the wrist, is also sometimes referred to as texting thumb, although doctors don’t know whether smartphone use can cause the condition.
But gripping your phone or texting with your thumbs may lead to more severe symptoms of smartphone thumb, they believe.
Tablets contribute, too
The problem isn’t just from smartphones. A Popular Mechanics report says use of iPads and tablets is resulting in the same injuries.
“There are always safe ways to use technology, but tech companies should inform consumers about the risks,” the report says, “and continue to refine their products with information from science and medicine to make safe use of these products easier and more convenient.”
The risk of injury, the report adds, is proportionate to how much you “deviate” from neutral postures, the more force you apply, and the time and frequency you spend in the same position.
That conclusion points to mindfulness as being one preventive measure. As absorbed as you may have become with your smartphone and other mobile devices, you need to train yourself to take breaks.
Maybe read a book instead, or just sit back, close your eyes, and daydream a little bit. You’re not going to miss nearly as much as you believe.
What to do if you have smartphone thumb or texting thumb
If you’re in the grip of thumb pain, the Emory University Orthopedic and Spine Center suggests:
- You limit smartphone use for texting, gaming, and internet surfing. It also recommends that you use a computer with a regular-sized keyboard whenever possible, or attach a larger keyboard to your smartphone.
- Hold your phone in one hand and type with your index finger rather than your thumbs. It’ll be slower, but safer.
- Stop and rest your hands if your start to feel uncomfortable and gently stretch your thumbs, wrists, and fingers. Your posture is part of the pain equation as well. Don’t hunch over your phone, and take time to stretch.
- If you develop pain, it will be accompanied by inflammation. Apply ice packs to reduce it.
- Other advice includes strengthening the muscles of the hand and fingers by squeezing a tennis ball or another type of ball that has some give to it, and make more actual phone calls to cut down on texting.
That said, the best advice is to use your smartphone judiciously. While you may believe you’re staying connected with constant texts and searches, research suggests the just the presence of a smartphone can diminish the quality of in-person conversations. It’s a distraction that reduces empathy, the study says.
"Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies," a research team at Virginia Tech University writes. "In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds."
So, you can save your thumbs and your friendships at the same time.
March 27, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA