Smartphone Use and Hand Pain

May 8, 2024

hand pain from smartphone

Smartphones and tablets have transformed almost every aspect of our daily lives, offering easy access to everything from scheduling appointments to ordering food and staying in touch with friends and family. However, this convenience can come at a cost.

Claire Nurse, a licensed occupational therapist and certified hand therapist at Orlin & Cohen, explains common hand injuries associated with holding, scrolling, and swiping on your cell phone and provides five tips for preventing pain.

What injuries are associated with smartphone use?

Typing, swiping, and tapping on small screens can cause painful, degenerative conditions in the hands and wrists due to the repetitive motions involved. Using smartphones excessively for gaming can lead to tendon rupture, and general overuse has also been associated with an enlarged median nerve, thumb pain (even at rest), and weakened pinch strength.

In recent years, orthopedic doctors and hand therapists have observed an increase in patients seeking treatment specifically related to device use, such as texting thumb and text neck syndrome. In fact, one study revealed that 40% of participants experienced wrist or thumb pain linked to holding their phone and other overuse of their digital assistants.

3 Common injuries from smartphone overuse

1. De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis

A painful inflammatory condition, De Quervain’s tenosynovitis refers to the swelling of the sheath surrounding the tendons that extend the thumb. As a result of this inflammation, movements such as grasping, pinching, and twisting of the wrist can be excruciating. This condition can be caused by the frequent use of a tablet or a large smartphone, prolonged periods of holding the phone in a position that irritates the thumb tendons, and repeated swiping across the screen.

2. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is a hand and wrist condition frequently attributed to repetitive actions, including prolonged smartphone use. This ailment develops when the median nerve within the carpal tunnel—a narrow passage in the wrist—becomes compressed. Individuals afflicted with CTS often report sensations of pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in their hands, notably affecting the thumb, index, and middle fingers. Symptoms tend to intensify during nighttime or when engaging in activities requiring wrist flexion or extension, such as gripping a phone.

3. Trigger Finger (Tendonitis)

Trigger finger is a condition that causes inflammation of the tendons (or tendonitis) in the fingers and hands. Repetitive movements, such as prolonged gripping of objects and frequent tapping on touch screens, usually cause trigger finger. This can lead to pain, stiffness, or a clicking sensation when attempting to straighten the digit. Over time, the affected finger may become increasingly difficult to move, and in severe cases, it may remain stuck in a bent position, requiring manual manipulation.

5 Tips for Preventing Hand Pain from Smartphone Use

It’s crucial to prioritize the health of your hands and wrists to prevent discomfort and potential injuries caused by digital devices. You can significantly improve your hand function and comfort by incorporating these simple yet effective habits into your smartphone usage routine.

1. Take regular breaks

Take regular pauses from smartphone use to give your hands and wrists a break. Set a reminder every half hour to stretch and rest. Apps like Break Time and StretchMinder can provide notifications and prompts to put the device down.

2. Maintain good posture

Keep a healthy posture while using your smartphone. This means avoiding excessive neck bending, twisting, or arm extension. Instead, it’s best to change your position frequently to prevent strain on your elbows and wrists.

3. Use voice commands

Reduce the strain on your hands by utilizing voice commands for tasks like sending messages or making calls. Check if your device has a built-in voice assistant or download an app to help you perform these tasks.

4. Practice ergonomic habits

Invest in ergonomic accessories to support your body while using electronic devices. For example, a phone stand can help reduce neck strain when watching videos, and a stylus alleviates pressure on fingers and hands.

5. Refresh your hands

Stretch your forearms, wrists, and fingers every 30 minutes to relieve pressure and prevent muscle tightness. Targeted exercises like thumb lifts, palm presses, and isometric wrist extensions can be done throughout the day.

Are you experiencing persistent hand or wrist pain when using your devices? Orlin & Cohen’s team of board-certified, fellowship-trained hand specialists and occupational therapists offers a hands-on approach to diagnosing the issue and designing personalized treatment plans tailored to your unique needs. Contact us today to schedule an appointment and get the help you need.