My Thumb Hurts! Here's Why
You may have scanned the title of this article and thought to yourself: “Texting thumbs? Is that really a medical condition?” Well, in a manner of speaking – yes, yes it is.
According to Virtua orthopedic surgeon Andrea Bowers, MD, the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, laptops and handheld gaming systems in today’s high-tech world has brought with it an unfortunate consequence – a new host of repetitive strain injuries (also known as RSIs) that stem from our increased use of these devices.
Repetitive strain injury defined
What’s a repetitive strain injury? In a nutshell, an RSI takes root when a part of either the musculoskeletal or the nervous system is strained or damaged due to a repetitive task that causes a person to sustain an awkward or forceful position or exertion. A sudden, sharp pain, unusual fatigue, or tingling and numbness in the afflicted area are among the symptoms of an RSI.
Dr. Bowers regularly sees patients who are suffering from these sorts of injuries, and here she offers a few words of wisdom to the hopelessly tech-obsessed.
RSI associated with overuse of our thumbs
In the late ‘80s, we called it Nintendo thumb. In the ‘90s, it became Blackberry thumb.
No matter what you call it, the swelling, pain, and tenderness are the same, and it can put you at greater risk for more serious issues. These include carpal tunnel syndrome or even stenosing tenosynovitis, also called ‘trigger thumb,’ in which the thumb locks into a bent position and needs to be manually straightened.
“The more severe cases can require injections, or even surgery,” warns Dr. Bowers.
Her advice? “If you can, back off from the offending activity. You might, for example, pick up the phone instead of sending 30 texts to have the same conversation.”
For those for whom texting or mobile email is required for work: “Try recruiting other fingers, and take frequent breaks. Massage the affected area, and take an over-the-counter oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for pain as needed.”
RSI associated with laptops
These days, many laptops are just as powerful as desktops. Translation: more and more people are using laptops as their primary, or even sole, computer. Convenient, yes, but bad news for our bodies.
The built-in track pad found on most laptops concentrates a lot of activity into a cramped space, and one that forces awkward hand movement. The keyboard and screen being so close together makes for uncomfortable typing, and, in most cases, the need to bend at the neck to properly view the display. Because laptops are so portable, users are often away from their desk and computing at long stretches with far-from-ideal body posture.
"If possible,” says Dr. Bowers, “use a desktop computer as your primary work machine.” And when you must use a laptop? “Use a peripheral mouse and keyboard whenever possible,” says Dr. Bowers.
Several companies now are even making a new kind of mouse that is basically a high-tech glove – your hand becomes the mouse. “Some of those options may be expensive, but they’re worth at least checking out.”
Aches and pains associated with slouching
Good posture not only improves your appearance, but it’s just plain good for your body. Today’s final culprit of tech-induced tribulation is the sinister slouch. To illustrate, here’s a quick quiz:
How have you been sitting as you’ve read this article?
- My head is held high
- My computer screen is directly in front of me, at eye level
- My shoulders are back and my spine is straight
- Both of my feet are flat on the floor
- All of the above
- None of the above
If you answered "all of the above," congratulations!
The unfortunate news for the rest of us: Sustained slouching can lead to all sorts of aches and pains – even, in some cases, serious injury.
"You can develop headaches, neck pain, back pain, bursitis, nerve impingement, issues with the trapezius (shoulder) muscles, the rotator cuff,” says Dr. Bowers. The list goes on and on. “But these problems are all avoidable. Good lower back support, straight posture of the upper back, and frequent breaks (she recommends a 10-minute break for every hour spent sitting in front of the computer) are all going to help prevent problems down the road.”
A Take-Home Tweet (Or, A Conclusion in 140 Characters or Less)
Our society’s obsession with the latest gadgets isn’t going anywhere. We just need to stay aware of our bodies (and our posture!) to keep texting far into the future.
Updated June 6, 2016