Is your smartphone a pain in the thumb?

March 10, 2020 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

Smartphones have become an integral part of our daily lives.

We use them to check the time, order a meal, check social media, read the latest news or text a friend. On average, Americans spend about three hours a day on their phones.

And while that all seems simple and routine enough, our fingers — especially our thumbs — can become overtaxed by the workout of holding the phone and pecking away at the keys.

For some, that repetitive motion can lead to a condition that is now commonly known as texting or text thumb — a nod to the popular use of cell phones.

The condition — where the base of the thumb swells or becomes inflamed from repetitive motion causing it to become stiff — was around long before cell phones became a part of everyday living.

“Previously it might have been caused by doing a lot of needle work or typing,” says Joanne Labriola, M.D., an independent orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff of Edward and Elmhurst Hospitals. “It’s not that this did not exist before, it was just called something else.

“It can affect anyone, but it is more common in adults and risk increases with age,” says Dr. Labriola, who specializes in hand and microvascular surgery.

While it is not a clearly defined condition, texting thumb typically refers to one of two conditions:

  • Trigger finger. In this instance, you may feel a swelling of the flexor tendon at the base of your finger. This condition can cause the finger to become stuck or locked in a bent position and usually affects the middle finger the most. Typically, this condition is worse in the morning and pain can persist with use throughout the day. Typical treatment options involve over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as Aleve®. If the pain persists, your doctor may recommend a steroid injection, which Dr. Labriola says can be curative in 75 to 80 percent of the cases. In cases where steroids do not help, outpatient surgery to open the constricted tunnel can help.
  • Arthritis. The swelling you feel at the base of the thumb can be caused by arthritis. This typically affects women, who may start experiencing problems in their 30s or 40s, Dr. Labriola says. Overuse or activities that involve gripping something can cause inflammation around the joint at the base of the thumb, and the cartilage at the joint surface can wear out over time, causing arthritis. Again, over-the- counter medications such as Aleve can help, as can soaking the hand in Epsom salt. Your doctor may also recommend using a brace to help ease the pain. In some cases, surgery to remove the arthritis is needed.

In cases of trigger finger or arthritis, Dr. Labriola also recommends resting the hand. If you use your phone often or if you’re at the computer typing a good portion of your day, give your hands a rest and do some exercises by opening and closing your hands.

If your thumb hurts, try gently rotating it to help loosen it up. Also consider using the settings on your smart phone or electronic device to set alerts to help keep usage in check and give your hands a break.

Seeking treatment early can be key in the success of less invasive procedures, such as the steroid injections. Dr. Labriola recommends seeing your doctor if you have pain or a catching or locking in your fingers that persist more than a couple of weeks and interferes with your daily activities.

“You want to start treatment before you have any stiffness in your finger,” she says, adding that while treatment can be effective later, recovery may be longer once you develop stiffness in your finger.

Learn more about orthopedic services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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