The average person spends a little more than three hours each day on their phone, according to Entrepreneur magazine, which totals almost nine years over a lifetime. After dedicating nearly a decade of time to our phones, it’s no surprise our bodies may suffer some consequences along the way.
Texting thumb (pain and inflammation) is caused by the repeated motion of typing and scrolling on a cell phone. Tech neck — clinically known as cervical kyphosis — is a painful condition in the neck and upper back caused by the poor posture so many people take on when staring at their phones or computers. And now, there’s cell phone elbow.
Phone getting on your nerves?
R. David Graham, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon at Baptist Medical Center Beaches and Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute who sees patients with so-called cell phone elbow. The official name is cubital tunnel syndrome.
“This is something that’s been around for years, before even the advent of cell phones. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome, but at the elbow,” Dr. Graham explained. “It makes sense why people call it cell phone elbow, because when you’re sitting on your cell phone in a resting posture with your arms bent, you’re putting pressure on the ulnar nerve, which runs through the elbow, and it causes numbness and tingling in your fingers.”
Despite its street name, cell phones don’t actually cause this condition. Cubital tunnel syndrome is the result of the ulnar nerve being compressed in a too-tight passageway. The people most at risk for cell phone elbow are those whose anatomy just happens to be a little more cramped around their ulnar nerve, making it more likely that bending the elbow will compress it.
“Cell phone use is more of an aggravator than the root cause. It’s more so that you’re predisposed to this syndrome and exacerbating it by having your arm in that bent position,” Dr. Graham said.
Symptoms of cell phone elbow most commonly include numbness and tingling of your pinky and ring finger. Other signs could be reoccurring elbow or hand pain (typically in the pinky and ring finger), weakness in the arm and frequent dropping of objects. Cell phone elbow sufferers also report symptoms tend to be worst at night.
Dr. Graham added that some people are more likely to deal with cubital tunnel syndrome, whether it comes from cell phone use or something else.
“There has been some correlation with prior trauma to the elbow, as well as elbow arthritis. It can also have a genetic component. If your parents had it, you may also develop a similar issue.”
Take a tech break
Much like carpal tunnel, there are things you can try at home to alleviate discomfort caused by cubital tunnel syndrome.
“If you experience it every once in a while, treatment is about making lifestyle changes. Start with wearing a brace,” recommended Dr. Graham. “When you go to sleep at night, wear an elbow pad or wrap a pillow around your arm to keep the elbow straight during the night. If you don’t bend your elbow for a long period of time, symptoms may improve.”
He also suggested avoiding talking on the phone with your elbow bent for extended periods. Instead, use speakerphone or ear buds. You can also avoid using armrests on chairs or in your vehicle, and take over-the-counter pain relievers as needed.
If you’ve tried these remedies and are still experiencing numbness and tingling, it’s time to check in with an orthopedic specialist.
“If your finger is numb more often than it’s not, you should see a surgeon,” said Dr. Graham. “That can cause lasting problems to your hand, like permanent numbness and tingling and loss of grip strength. Nothing can relieve or correct the problem except surgery if it gets to that point.”
Are you experiencing cell phone elbow or other kinds of joint discomfort? Baptist Health and Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute can help. Schedule an appointment online at the location nearest you.