Monday Medical: Hand pain? Put down that phone
October 29, 2018
Swipe, text, browse: Your thumbs are important when using your cellphone. But all of that work can lead to injury.
From tendonitis to nerve damage, cellphones aren't harmless when it comes to your thumbs or your fingers, hands, wrists and posture, for that matter.
Below, Shelly Walentiny, a certified hand therapist and occupational therapist with UCHealth SportsMed Clinic, describes cellphone related injuries and how to prevent and treat them.
Cellphones can be the culprit when it comes to tendonitis, nerve damage, postural issues and more.
In tendonitis, the constant texting, swiping and game-playing has overworked the thumbs and irritated the tendon that stretches from the thumb into the arm.
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"As the tendon rolls back and forth over the bones in the wrist area, the tissue thickens, and it can become hard, swollen and irritated," Walentiny said. "That pain is felt mostly in the wrist while using a cellphone."
Carpal tunnel syndrome, in which a nerve inside the wrist gets compressed, may also develop due to hand position when using your phone. Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include pain, tingling and numbness in the thumb, index and middle fingers and sometimes the wrist and hand. The hand may also become weak.
Pain in the back of the hand and in the area between the thumb and index finger may be a sign that your cellphone use has irritated your radial sensory nerve, which runs over the thumb and near the tendon.
Additionally, cellphones have a negative impact on posture.
"Our posture is terrible when we're looking at our phones," Walentiny said. "Shoulders are slumped, heads down, no core muscles are engaged. We're likely going to see more and more issues as teens who constantly use their phones get older."
Preventing and treating pain
The first rule of pain is to stop what you're doing when you feel it. That may mean putting your phone down for a break, using the voice-to-text feature whenever possible, switching hands or typing with a stylus.
Stretching and strength-building are also key. Walentiny encourages people to work on overall posture first.
"Posture very much affects your upper extremities: shoulders, arms, hands," Walentiny said. "People should work on engaging core muscles and doing stabilization exercises with the abdominal and back muscles."
And prioritize stretching.
"Over time, we start slumping and spend a lot of time in that position," Walentiny said. "Any time you're slumping, it can create an impingement. So, it's real important to do stretches, in particular for your pectoral muscles."
One stretch Walentiny recommends is to sit in a chair with a ball at your back, squeeze shoulder blades together, lean back and open your arms out to the side.
Stretches, massages and trigger releases for the hands and thumbs can be helpful, and a hand therapist can recommend movement patterns that help relax nerves, as well as strengthening exercises for the thumb.
"We do lots of strengthening for the thumbs because people end up with muscle imbalances," Walentiny said.
If the pain does not ease up quickly, Walentiny encourages patients to address it. A visit to a hand specialist can help determine next steps, which often includes physical therapy.
"You don't want to lose strength and function of the hand, as it can affect so many activities: your recreational activities as much as your daily activities," Walentiny said. "We use our hands for everything."
Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.