Here are a few things I use my phone for each and every day:
- Alarm clock
- Texting my friends
- Scanning social media
- Reading the news
- Listening to music and podcasts
- Checking sports scores
- Taking pictures
- Scheduling appointments
- Managing my finances
Needless to say, it’s a lot. From the moment I wake up until I’m getting ready for bed, my iPhone is constantly in my hand.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to experience some discomfort around the base of my right thumb, the very digit that does the majority of my swiping and tapping. A cursory Google search brought up a term called “texting thumb,” which seemed to encompass my symptoms.
I read stories warning that my constant smartphone use was setting me on a path towards tendinitis, and that arthritis was surely waiting around the corner. Suddenly, my smartphone seemed to exist with the sole purpose of destroying my hand.
I decided to talk to an expert to set the record straight.
Dr. S. Steven Yang specializes in hand and wrist surgery at the NYU Langone Medical Center. He performs hundreds of surgeries a year, with patients that include professional athletes and classical musicians. If anyone could help me understand what was going on with my hand, it was him.
Right off the bat, Dr. Yang explained that there is no diagnosis called “texting thumb.” He told me that back in the 1980s, the worry was that kids who played too many video games would develop “Nintendo thumb” and that in the late 1990s and early 2000s “BlackBerry thumb” was the diagnosis du jour.
“These are basically laypeople’s terminology for discomfort that they are having in their hands when they’re doing too much of something,” Dr. Yang said.
Still, he acknowledged that a lack of a formal term for the discomfort does not mean that there is nothing going on under the skin.
“Smartphones — they’re small. They’re not really ergonomically designed to be doing repetitive actions for protracted periods of time,” he explained. “So what happens is people get sore. But the soreness we’re talking about is not that different from what even a generation ago people used to call ‘writer’s cramp.’”
“Smartphones, they’re small. They’re not really ergonomically designed to be doing repetitive actions for protracted periods of time”
According to Dr. Yang, soreness from repetitive use of a smartphone is categorized as a repetitive stress injury (RSI). Because there is nothing broken or dislocated in the hand, and in many cases there isn’t even much inflammation, an RSI is a “diagnosis of exclusion,” meaning that all other diagnoses have been ruled out.
When we operate a smartphone, there’s a whole slew of complex motions going on under the skin. Muscles are contracting, tendons are colliding, and the result is our thumbs flexing and extending while they fly over a digital keyboard.
But discomfort in your hand doesn’t mean that you are developing any sort of ailment — just that your hand needs a break.
“I think people just get sore from using their phones,” Dr. Yang said. “They get aches and pains, but phones aren’t causing bones to break or ligaments to rupture or anything like that.”
He dismissed my question about smartphones causing damage to people’s hands by pointing out that the number of people who develop serious hand problems from phone use is “infinitesimally small.”
“There is no epidemiological evidence of an increase in any of these conditions,” Dr. Yang explained. “Over the past decade, the number of people using smartphones has skyrocketed. It has increased exponentially. If this were in fact a serious public health problem there would be an epidemic of people with repetitive stress injuries. And there’s not.”
If you’re like me and are experiencing aches associated with your smartphone use, the prescription is simple: switch hands. Or, better yet, put your phone down for awhile.
If you’re like me and are experiencing aches associated with your smartphone use, the prescription is simple: switch hands. Or better yet, put your phone down for a while.
Unless stiffness and cramping are sustained and continue after you’ve put down your device, there’s nothing wrong with your hand that merits a visit to a hand specialist like Dr. Yang.
Instead, he suggests taking frequent breaks over the course of the day. Open and close your fingers, stretch your wrists and forearms. The key is to give your muscles and tendons a rest every once in a while.
And no, you’re not doing yourself any favors by holding your phone in one hand and poking at the screen with your other index finger. According to Dr. Yang there’s no known posture that’s better than another when it comes to grasping your phone.
So when your hand starts to cramp up and get sore while you’re using your phone, that’s just your body’s way of telling you to take it easy. And you should listen to your body — it’s almost always right.