06 July 2009
Hunching over, using one thumb increases the risk, study shows
Beyond the already well–known “BlackBerry thumb,” avid texting may also cause pain to the hand, arm and neck, new research shows.
But there may be ways to avoid this discomfort, the study found. Young adults who texted while hunched over and typed using only one thumb had more problems with their arms, neck and hands than those who sat straighter and used more than one digit.
“Considering how much we use the small mobile phone keypads, it is important that we learn how they affect our bodies,” said study author Ewa Gustafsson, an ergonomist at the Sahlgrenska Academy in Sweden. “We need to identify factors related to mobile–phone usage that may affect our health and ability to work.”
Modern communications devices are associated with several painful repetitive stress and nerve compression injuries.
Cell phone elbow, otherwise known as cubital tunnel syndrome, is a tingling or numbness in the hands caused by a compression of the ulnar nerve when the elbow is flexed during lengthy gab sessions, and Guitar Hero wrist is a tendinitis of the wrist brought on by overly vigorous strumming.
Then there’s so–called BlackBerry thumb, which strikes those who spend a lot of time sending rapid–fire missives from their mobile devices.
“The difference between the computer age and the typewriter age is that people don’t stop,” said Dr. David Edelstein, orthopedic and hand surgeon at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. “They are typing all day. During their lunch break they are using a mouse or texting, and they may go home and do more.”
In the most serious cases, excessive wear and tear and inflammation of the basal joint at the base of the thumb can lead to arthritis, Edelstein said. Thumb arthritis can cause hand pain, swelling, decreased strength and range of motion.
“For every pound of pressure that you push at the tip of your thumb, it’s magnified at the base of your thumb,” Edelstein said. “Over time, this can lead to problems.”
And it’s not just the thumb that can get sore. According to the Swedish researchers, excessive texting can also lead to neck and back pain.
The researchers analyzed texting technique, muscular electrical activity and thumb movement using an electrogoniometer, an electrical device that measures flexibility, in 56 young adults.
Half complained of neck, arm or hand symptoms; half had no symptoms.
Those with pain tended to text while hunched over, a position that puts strain on the neck and upper back muscles, according to the yet–to–be–published study.
“I think it definitely does matter what position you stay in,” Edelstein said. “Hunching over is not a physiologically proper position.”
Study participants with pain were more likely to use one thumb to text instead of both thumbs.
Heather Turkopp, a certified hand specialist and occupational therapist at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., said she rarely sees patients whose sole complaint is texting–related, though that may change in the years to come. Repetitive stress injuries can take years to develop.
“If you do something repetitive, it will irritate the tissues, inflame them and create pain,” Turkopp said. “Employers are asking for more and more in less and less time. I would not be surprised if we started seeing more of it.”
To prevent pain from texting, experts recommend:
- Avoid sitting in the same position for extended periods. Get up and take breaks.
- Pay attention to posture. When seated at a desk, your monitor should be at eye level, your arms should be bent at a 90–degree angle, your knees should be bent at 90 degrees and your feet should rest on the floor.
- Many people hunch over when texting because they’re trying to see the tiny keyboard. To keep from putting added pressure on your neck and upper back, rest the mobile device on your desk and lean against the chair’s backrest.
- Use both thumbs and give your thumbs a break when typing long messages.
- Stay active. “People who are more active outside of work and have good circulation will heal better than those who are less active and have poorer circulation,” Turkopp said.
- If you experience soreness, stop texting. Anti–inflammatory medications such as Advil or Motrin can also help.