Obsessed With Your Phone? Tips for Elbow, Thumb, Neck Pain

Repetitive stress injuries linked to mobile device overuse

You’re constantly grabbing your smartphone to check the weather, watch videos, read the news, check in with family, text friends, play games and look things up.

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But you may not realize that staying connected involves repetitive motions that can take a toll on several parts of your body. In fact, repetitive strain injuries associated with talking, texting and swiping on mobile devices are on the rise.

Orthopedic surgeon Peter J. Evans, MD, PhD, often sees these injuries in his practice. We asked him what you should know about the risks of cell phone overuse. Breaking injuries into three main types, he offers tips on prevention and treatment.

1. Cell phone elbow

If you spend a lot of time chatting on your phone, you may develop cell phone elbow, called cubital tunnel syndrome.

This repetitive strain injury stems from holding your elbow at an extreme angle for long periods of time, as you do when holding your phone to your ear. This compresses the ulnar nerve, which travels from your neck to your hand.

Signs of cubital tunnel syndrome include tingling, numbness, burning or aching in the forearm, and the small and ring fingers of the hand.

Dr. Evans recommends using a headset instead of holding your phone to your ear when talking on the phone, or switching hands frequently.

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2. Texting thumb

Although texting on most smartphones is faster with your thumbs, our thumbs aren’t really very limber. Heavy texting with your thumbs can cause fine tears in your muscles and tendons, creating inflammation that causes swelling and stiffness.

Try varying your texting style, Dr. Evans suggests. Using your index fingers might slow you down, but it will give your thumbs a break.

Or consider using voice-to-text instead of your fingers. You can also try an external keyboard for extended text conversations if you’re not communicating on the go.

3. Neck, back and shoulder pain

All that time spent looking downward at your cell phone or tablet can cause problems with your neck and upper back. Keeping your head bent for hours each day can lead to pain, muscle spasms and stiffness in your neck, upper back and shoulders.

Some studies even suggest it may lead to early arthritis in the neck.

Dr. Evans advises keeping your mobile devices as close to eye level as you can to help relieve neck strain.

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Pay attention to your body

If you notice tingling, numbness or pain in your hands, arms or neck, pay attention to how you hold your phone and how you’re bending your neck to view it.

The first step in preventing repetitive strain injuries is simple, says Dr. Evans. Once you pinpoint the problem, stop whatever it is you’re doing to cause the injury. Or if you can’t stop, at least reduce how often you do it.  Taking physical and mental breaks from talking, texting and browsing online will do you good.

Remember RICE

If you suspect your pain is related to mobile device use, you can start treating it with RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation). This first-aid strategy involves:

  • Resting the part of your body that’s hurting.
  • Applying an ice pack to reduce inflammation.
  • Compression, such as using a brace, for support.
  • Elevating the injured area above heart level, when possible, to help decrease swelling.

If your pain persists beyond a week or two, talk to your doctor. He or she may prescribe medication or physical therapy to help relieve pain and repair the damage.

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