Dr. David C. Hay: Hand and Wrist Specialist
In this highly digital age, we are continuously connected to social media sites, email, and texting; smartphones have become the accessory that rarely leaves our hands.
With all the time we spend staring down into our phone screens each day, “tech neck” has become a popularly-named health issue as we crane our necks in unnatural positions to work and play with our phones for hours on end. The time we spend staring down into our phone screens is a hazard for the cervical spine, but texting and typing on the smartphone also brings about an entirely different health concern involving our thumbs.
Terms like “text thumb” and “smartphone thumb” are being used to describe thumb pain related to constant texting and smartphone use. Billions of text messages are typed and sent every day and countless hours are spent scrolling through social media apps. Most people hold their cellphone in one hand and use that thumb to control it, but the joints and muscles in the thumb just are not designed for that type of position and usage. This can lead to pain from the tug of war between the tendons flexing and extending the thumb…and to an appointment in the office of a hand specialist like me.
Overuse of the thumbs can lead to a repetitive strain injury (RSI). Too much typing and repetitive motion of the thumb overexert the thumb’s tendons, (tendons are the rope-like structures that the muscle uses to pull the bone). They can become inflamed and develop tendonitis – which brings with it pain, throbbing and motion loss in the affected area.
Thumb dominated smartphone use can lead to inflammation in the thumb joint causing pain and soreness that usually subsides with rest. But, it can also lead to de Quervain’s Tenosynovitis, pain and inflammation in the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist. With time this can lead to changes in the tendons and the tunnel through which they travel. This is common in new mothers, frequently picking up and holding their babies, but we are seeing it more and more in people whose hands are glued to their smartphone. Fortunately, this is usually not permanent, and with time and appropriate care, the inflammation will typically subside. Activity modification, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, rest and ice can reduce inflammation. But as a repetitive motion injury, it’s essential that you stop the problematic motion: overuse of the thumb to control your smartphone.
In the world of continuous communication and connection, not using your smartphone at all might not be an option, but there are things you can do to help treat and prevent future occurrences:
#1. Voice-text. A feature that allows you to speak into your phone to dictate a message. This way you can still send your emails and messages without using the thumb to type
#2. Place your phone on a table. The absolute worst position is holding your phone in your hand and typing with the same thumb. Instead, put your phone on a flat surface and try typing with a finger, or two, or the other hand.
#3. Text slowly. If you can’t get away from texting, try slowing down the speed at which you’re typing. Repetitive injuries are compounded by actions that are done very quickly. Fast texting is usually not a necessity, but a habit- and re-learning a slower pace is better for your thumb and calming for your mind.
#4. Ice the thumb. If you have had a long day of emailing and texting and start to feel some pain coming on, use an ice pack on the area for 20 minutes at a time to prevent further inflammation.
#5. Finally, gentle stretching of the thumb can increase blood flow and flexibility in the muscles, improve the motion of the tendons and keep the thumb moving normally. Simple exercises can help: Massage the thumb web on your hand, face your hand palm-down on a flat surface while stretching fingers as wide as they will go, try bringing the base of the thumb toward the pinky while keeping the tip of the thumb straight or bending the first joint of the thumb while keeping the tip joint straight and relaxed. All of these can help stretch the overused muscles and strengthen the underused ones to lessen your pain.
We may not be able to ditch text messaging today entirely, but we can utilize these tips to keep our thumbs as pain-free as possible in the future.