In a society where a low-battery warning can cause a full-on panic attack, it’s safe to say we’re all completely addicted to our wireless devices. It’s not that surprising, really. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones make our lives easier and the thought of being forced to do things the “old fashioned” way when they’re dead is downright terrifying. But the convenience associated with telecommuting and Tindering comes with a potential cost not often considered: your health.
While it can be hard to comprehend that the same devices that allow us to book doctors appointments and track our diets can have unhealthy consequences, it’s true. Not because the devices are “bad” for us, but because of the extended time we spend using them. On average, Americans log 2 hours and 31 minutes on a their smartphones and 43 minutes on their tablets daily, according to a Kleiner Perkins Internet analyst’s 2014 presentation on Internet trends. Plus, there are plenty of people who spend an 8-hour work day logged into a laptop. After a while, hours of emailing, texting, and double-tapping can lead to pain and cramping in the fingers, wrist, back, and shoulders.
Here, two top docs give you the scoop on increasingly common tech-related conditions. Plus, simple adjustments to ward off pain and prevent injuries—no digital detox required.
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What It Is: Text claw is a twenty-first century umbrella term used to describe overuse injuries, muscle strains, and tendon inflammation brought on by extended text messaging and cell phone use, explains Nader Paksima, D.O., M.P.H., associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at New York University School of Medicine and chief of orthopaedic surgery at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. Why is texting to blame? “It puts people in a position that’s unnatural for the thumbs and wrists, which can cause pain, cramping, and soreness in the fingers, forearm, and wrist joints.”
Pain Relief Rx: While it may seem obvious, avoid positions that cause pain, advises Paksima. “For example, instead of holding the phone and texting with your thumbs, place the phone on the table and use two fingers. Alternatively, use the voice activation system. “If the pain becomes worse or lasts more than six weeks, seek treatment. You may need hand therapy to relieve the symptoms.”
Tablet Induced Shoulder Strain
What It Is: Tablet users typically keep their fingers hovering above the touch-screen keyboard, which over time can lead to shoulder strain and pain, found a study published in Applied Ergonomics. People also tend to “look down at the tablet screen which contributes to shoulder pain by forcing the neck to over-flex,” explains Christopher Gharibo, M.D., medical director of pain medicine at NYU Langone’s Hospital for Joint Diseases.
Pain Relief Rx: To keep neck craning to a minimum, use a tablet stand and adjust your chair so that head flexion is minimized, suggests Gharibo. “Relax your muscles as you interact with the tablet and take your hands away from the screen when you’re not typing.”
Cell Phone Elbow
What It Is: Known to the medical community as cubital tunnel syndrome, this increasingly common condition is caused by decreased blood flow and compression of the ulnar nerve, which passes along the inside of the elbow. “Ulnar nerve irritation typically occurs in people who hold their phones up to their ear for prolonged periods of time,” explains Paksima. “This can lead to numbness, tingling or aching in the forearm, pinky, and ring fingers, similar to the sensation you experience after hitting your funny bone.”
Pain Relief Rx: Staying safe is a cinch. “During long conversations, switch arms frequently or use a hands-free device,” suggests Paksima.
What It Is: An uncomfortable condition caused by the extended use of portable computers. Laptops have a keyboard and monitor that are are combined, which forces the user to look downward, putting tension on neck, upper back, shoulders, and spine, explains Gharibo. Over time, this can result in neck and back pain and even lead to headaches at the base of the skull and behind the brows. If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, if can further exacerbate those symptoms, warns Paksima.
Pain Relief Rx: “Set up your laptop so the screen is within your natural line of vision when looking straight ahead,” suggests Gharibo. You may need to prop up the computer and use a wireless keyboard to get it into the right position. “Keep your arms relaxed while you're typing and don’t bend in the direction of the laptop,” he adds. Paksima suggests using an external mouse to ward off hand and arm irritation brought on by scroll pads.
What It Is: While it’s obviously not an official medical name, the symptoms brought on by extended tablet use have been dubbed ‘iPad Hand’. “When the hands are pressed against the metal corners of the iPad, it can put pressure against the fleshy part of the thumb and cause pain,” says Paksima. Extending the index finger for repetitive and prolonged scrolling can also lead to pain and numbness in the fingers and surrounding parts of the hands, he adds.
Pain Relief Rx: Listen to your body and take breaks at the first sign of irritation. Ignoring your body could lead to significant health problems, which will require extensive hand therapy or even surgery and injections, warns Paksima.