That’s right, texting, playing video games, and even taking too many selfies can all lead to repetitive stress injuries.
“In my own practice and via discussions with other musculoskeletal providers, patients, young and mature, are unaware of the risk of injury from their smartphones,” Dr. Renee Enriquez, rehabilitation specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center, told Healthline.
She says people start to understand a correlation between their symptoms and time on their devices once she asks them about their use.
“Selfie elbow, texting thumb, text neck, and ‘Nintenditus’ are colloquialisms that describe overuse musculoskeletal injuries associated with increased use of modern technology, including but not limited to smart phones, tablets, and video games,” Enriquez said.
So, what exactly happens to the body with these injuries?
Enriquez says common ailments and complaints she gets from patients that may occur with overuse of smartphones, tablets, computers, and video games, include neck pain, elbow pain, hand, wrist and thumb pain, as well as numbness and tingling in the arms, forearms, hand, and fingers.
Here’s how each may occur.
To get a selfie, you’re usually extending your arm as far out as you can to get everything into your picture.
James A. Riley, certified hand therapist and director of Rehab Services at Motus Rehabilitation in Warren, Michigan, says this motion causes your elbow to lock, your wrist to contort, and puts strain on your forearm muscles.
All of this can result in trauma to the tendon that connects to the elbow joint.
“Though it’s not a really heavy grip, you have to hold the phone out, so this can put stress on the tendons that help to extend or flex the wrist, and that’s not something [they’re] equipped for,” Riley told Healthline.
For perspective, he says, consider how you would carry a box.
“You’re going to keep that box close to your chest, palms up. If you carry the box extended away from your body, even eight inches from your chest, think about how much heavier that box would be and how much more stress it would put on your back,” he said. “Same thing with the phone, which isn’t heavy, but in that position will still put stress on your tendons and muscles.”
While both experts say a selfie stick may help, Riley notes that it could add to the problem.
“If you keep the selfie stick closer to the body and keep your elbow in, you might be better off, but if you have a stick, you’re still extending it out, so your elbow is most likely going to lock, and now you have to squeeze a smaller handle with a tighter grip,” he said. “Plus, the weight of the phone and stick are a little heavier than just taking a selfie with the phone alone,” he said.
According to a study by the data analytics company Nielsen, the average teenager sends 3,339 texts per month. Another study by Ofcom reports that 77 percent of kids between 12 and 15 years old play video games for about 12 hours a week. Combine those two activities, and that’s a lot of thumb action.
Texting thumb, also called gamer’s thumb, Nintenditus, or Nintendo thumb, is an injury that occurs when the tendon sheath becomes inflamed.
Enriquez says that in some cases, this can lead to long-term pain and permanent damage to the tendon of the long flexor muscle of the thumb.
“Disorders like texting thumb and ‘Nintenditus’ may lead to chronic pain, and even nerve damage. Treatments for such disorders may include oral pain medication, occupational therapy, injections, and sometimes even surgery, depending on the severity of the injury,” she said.
She said to avoid such injuries, take breaks while gaming and texting.
“Especially when using a game remote, think about how many quick twitch movements you’re doing, whether it be flexing, extending, or side-shifting movements. Rest is the best thing. In-between games or levels, stretch your fingers and wrists to keep them loose,” she said.
Riley says icing your hand or running it under cool water can help as well.
“Because the muscles get so overworked, we want to cool things down and prevent some of the swelling and inflammation that develops over time,” he said.
Enriquez advocates decreasing the amount of time on your smartphone.
“Most smartphones will tell you the hours you have spent on the phone per day, which surprises most of my patients when examined,” she said.
She also suggests alternating the use of your hand when texting or taking selfies.
“Not only will this decrease risk of overuse, it can help to strengthen the nondominant part of the brain,” Enriquez said.
Riley says stretching and gaining flexibility are the best defense against any injury.
“Stretching before an injury is the best thing to do. Something as simple as holding your arms out in front of you, and gently flexing and extending your wrists downward while keeping your hands relaxed so you’re not making a fist will stretch those muscles in the forearm,” he said.
He suggests stretching throughout the day, every hour or couple of hours to prevent soreness.
“That way you don’t have those symptoms at the end of the day after you’ve been using your screens all day,” he said.
Riley believes selfie elbow is less of a concern than gamer’s thumb, while Enriquez says the injuries deserve to be studied further.
“More prospective studies are needed to explore the causal relationship of chronic smartphone use and musculoskeletal disorders, as it is not known how long it takes to develop pain and injury in these areas,” she said. “But reviewing other disorders that have been proven to be associated with technology, including carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic keyboard use, it is not unreasonable to presume that the conditions in question can become severe and require medical interventions.”
With constant use of devices, medical professionals are seeing more patients with repetitive stress injuries, such as texting thumb and selfie elbow.
Some of these injuries can cause long-term damage if left untreated. However, more research is needed to fully understand the impact devices have on musculoskeletal disorders.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.