Phones have an impact on our physical health

NEW YORK — A few years ago, my best friend texted me to admit she was worried about her texting. Her hands and fingers ached throughout the day, and the pain worsened when she used her smartphone. Could our incessant texting about parenthood and politics be the culprit?

There is not yet a lot of research on the effects that smartphone use can have on the body. “We don’t know much,” said Dr. Jessica B. Schwartz, a New York-based physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association.

But she and the doctors I spoke with said they were seeing more patients than ever with pain as well as joint and soft tissue conditions such as tendinitis in the fingers, thumbs, wrists, elbows , neck, shoulders and upper back – and that cell phones were probably playing a role.

When we text friends or browse the internet on our phones, we often use our muscles and joints in ways that strain them, Dr. Schwartz said. Looking at our phones, as well as holding them in our hands with our wrists bent while we scroll or text, forces our joints and muscles to do things they weren’t evolved to do: stay in one position for too long. , holding too much weight and repeatedly moving through a short range of motion.

These positions and movements can put “excessive forces” on joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments “that are simply not used to being held in this position for so long”, said specialist Dr Renee Enriquez. in physical medicine and rehabilitation at UT Southwestern. Dallas Medical Center. Over time, these actions can cause inflammation, leading to pain and other problems, she said.

Not all doctors are aware of these risks. When my friend saw her GP about her hand pain, she had x-rays and blood tests and was told she had no arthritis. When she asked if her smartphone could be causing the pain, her doctor said it was unlikely.

She then saw another doctor, who ruled out carpal tunnel syndrome, and finally an orthopedic hand specialist, who laughed and said no when she asked – again – if her phone might be contributing to her pain .

Still, Dr. Schwartz said my friend’s symptoms were consistent with tendonitis – inflammation of the thick cords called tendons that attach muscle to bone – or tenosynovitis, inflammation of the wall of the sheath that surrounds the tendons.

Studies have linked tenosynovitis of the thumb, called de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, to frequent smartphone use. Phone use could also make symptoms worse in people who already have arthritis. She told me that while so-called smartphone pinky is not an established condition, using your pinky finger to support the weight of your phone could lead to problems.


In addition to pain that could come from inflammation of ligaments, joints, muscles, tendons and their sheaths, people can experience acute smartphone-related injuries. Dr. Jennifer Moriatis Wolf, an orthopedic hand surgeon at the Medical University of Chicago, said she’s seen patients who sprained their thumbs because they grabbed their phones so hard.

Frequent phone use can also affect our nerves. When we hold our phones in front of us with our elbows bent, we compress the ulnar nerve, which runs from the neck to the hand. This constriction can cause numbness and weakness in the little and ring fingers, Dr. Schwartz said.

More generally, when muscles, tendons or ligaments become inflamed from smartphone use, they can swell, which compresses the nerves running through them and leads to pain or numbness, Dr. Enriquez said. Cell phone use could also exacerbate pre-existing nerve problems, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Wolf added. Then there’s the strain smartphones can put on our eyes and the disruption blue light can cause to our sleep cycles.

“Text neck” is another term you may have heard. Consider what happens when you bend over to look at your phone: Compared to keeping your head up, this bent position increases the force exerted on your neck muscles and cervical spine by a factor of four or five, a said Dr. Jason M. Cuéllar, spinal orthopedic specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and JFK North Hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida.

This excessive force, he said, can weaken spinal ligaments over time and cause pain. A 2017 study found a link between texting and persistent neck, shoulder and upper back pain, although other studies have not found a link.

The cervical spines of some young patients Dr. Cuéllar sees are also abnormally bent. It could also be linked to frequent smartphone use, he said, and could increase the risk of back problems.

“What we think is that this leads to accelerated disc degeneration,” he said, referring to the deterioration of spinal discs, small shock absorbers placed between the vertebrae to help us move around comfortably. . “We’re seeing more younger people, in their 20s, often 30s, with cervical spine issues.”


What should you do if your phone is causing you pain or you are worried about it happening? Although my friend’s doctors dismissed the idea that her phone had something to do with her aching hands, she eventually got rid of her large smartphone and bought a smaller one to see if it would help. She also started using a voice-to-text option to reduce pressure on her fingers. Her pain quickly dissipated.

Dr Schwartz agreed that downsizing to a smaller, lighter phone might be a good idea if you have small hands and the text-to-speech tool can ease pain by reducing pressure on your fingers. She and Dr. Enriquez also recommended phone grips and stands like those made by PopSocket and Moft, which can relieve much of the pressure of holding a phone from fingers and thumbs. Dr Cuéllar said it might help to use a stand that holds your phone at eye level, so you don’t strain your neck to see it.

If you’re in a lot of pain, it’s a good idea to see a physical therapist or doctor, such as an orthopedist or physical medicine specialist, because they can recommend treatments and stretches, Dr. Schwartz said. “If you catch these things early, they don’t tend to become chronic,” she said.

But if something hurts you, the easiest solution is to stop doing it so much. In other words, Dr. Wolf said, “the best advice would be: turn off your phone.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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