Recent advances in technology have changed our lives dramatically, in many ways for the better. Increasingly, people are using their electronic mobile devices to stay connected to the digital world. However, overuse of hand-held devices can lead to unintended problems involving the hand, wrist, and arm.
High demands are placed on the thumbs and wrists when people use their smartphones excessively. Repetitive typing and swiping can lead to irritation and swelling of the thumb flexor tendon. Over time, some people can develop painful popping or locking of the thumb, a condition called “trigger thumb.” Holding a smartphone with the wrist in an awkward position for a prolonged period of time can irritate the wrist and forearm tendons and may contribute to a painful condition known as “DeQuervain’s tendonitis.” This type of wrist tendonitis is typically seen in young mothers whose hands are in high-demand while caring for their newborns.
Additionally, excessive smartphone use can also cause problems other than tendonitis. People with pre-existing arthritis may experience an increase in pain and swelling when the thumb basilar joint is over-worked, such as with frequent texting. Furthermore, soreness in the arm, shoulder, or neck may arise from using a mobile device improperly. Looking down at the smartphone for hours a day with poor posture can strain the muscles of the shoulders and neck.
The primary treatment for these problems involves commonsense changes in behavior. Many people routinely type hundreds of text messages per day — an activity which is probably not what our hands were designed to do. Texting less frequently, improving upper body posture, and modifying the way the hand-held device is used can help. If symptoms are not improved with rest, treatments such as splints, medications, hand therapy, and cortisone injections are available. It is okay to use smartphones, but it is important to recognize the potential for overuse problems.