From typing work emails to browsing streaming services, you might find that your “screen time” includes much of your waking hours.
As of 2019, the Pew Research Center estimates that 81 percent of Americans own smartphones.
The fingers most impacted by holding a smartphone, tablet, or video game controller are your pinky and thumb. By extension, your wrists can also be impacted by the way you hold your phone.
If you spend a lot of time gripping or clutching your phone, your fingers and thumb can start to cramp or become inflamed. This condition is called “smartphone finger,” texting tendinitis, texting thumb, and gamer’s thumb.
Let’s take a look at the reasons these can happen and the steps you can take to help prevent it.
Each hand is made of 27 bones, 35 muscles, and over 100 tendons connecting bones and muscles. Your flexor tendons bend your fingers, and tendons that straighten your fingers are called extensor tendons.
When the muscles in your fingers need to make a movement (like selecting something on a smartphone), these tendons contract and extend.
Repetitive movements can tire these tendons out, resulting in wear and tear on the tendon as well as soreness and inflammation. This is called tendinitis.
Smartphone finger can also be the result of constant pressure on the pinky joint as you hold your device.
Symptoms of smartphone finger
Symptoms of smartphone finger may include:
- pain or stiffness at the base of the affected finger
- a clicking sound when you move your pinky finger
- difficulty moving your fingers when you wake up in the morning
- numbness in your fingertip
If your symptoms are indeed caused by smartphone use, your dominant hand will likely experience the majority of pain, cramps, and stiffness. Smartphone pinky or smartphone finger tends to be connected to the use of larger devices, such as tablets or e-readers.
Smartphone finger is a relatively new condition, so researchers are still learning about it. It does have some similarities to another known condition called trigger finger.
Smartphone thumb, also called texting tendinitis or “trigger thumb,” has many of the same causes and symptoms of smartphone finger. It may be more common when you use a smaller phone or a phone that requires manual texting instead of a touchscreen.
Smartphone thumb symptoms may also occur when you’re using a gaming controller that either requires a lot of joystick movement or relies on your grip for support while you play.
If your symptoms are caused by your smartphone use, you’ll notice your pain and stiffness flare up when you interact with your device.
Symptoms of smartphone thumb
Symptoms of smartphone thumb include:
- cramping in the thenar eminence (the fleshy area between your thumb and index finger)
- numbing and stiffness in your thumb
- a clicking noise when you try to move your thumb
- throbbing pain in your thumb
If you’re experiencing pain and stiffness due to smartphone use, here are some home remedies that you can try:
- Put down your phone. Take a break from devices and screen time altogether. Give your fingers, thumbs, and wrists a rest. You may not be able to take a break from screen-based activities for weeks at a time, so start by taking at least a full day off.
- Apply ice to the site of inflammation. If you’re feeling stiffness in your joints, ice can help relieve symptoms.
- Try heat therapy. A warm compress, a rice sock, or a heating pad can also reduce pain and swelling.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help manage pain.
- Stabilize the joint. Use a splint or a brace to keep your finger stable throughout the day and help reduce pain and inflammation.
When to see a doctor
Some symptoms indicate that home remedies won’t be enough to treat your smartphone finger. Seek treatment if you experience any of the following:
- pain that lasts for 7 to 10 days, even after home remedies
- pain that is severe and keeps you from doing other activities
- recurrent numbness that doesn’t subside after a day off from smartphone use
If you have chronic pain related to smartphone use, share this with a doctor. They’ll be able to do a preliminary examination and determine if you need a referral to a specialist.
If you’re referred for further evaluation, you’ll most likely see an orthopedist who focuses on bones, tendons, and muscles. An orthopedist can evaluate your hand for swelling or tendon damage consistent with smartphone use.
Treatment for this condition will vary on a case-by-case basis:
- Rest and anti-inflammatory medications as first line treatment or for mild cases
- Corticosteroid injections for more severe cases of pain from smartphone finger
Surgery may be necessary to repair your tendon and restore it to full function in very severe cases.
Here are some steps you can take to help prevent flare-ups of smartphone finger and texting tendinitis.
Use a smartphone grip or a case that enables you to use your device without holding onto it. This can decrease the pressure on your thumb and your pinky.
These accessories may hold your phone up for you or may simply allow you to hold your device without the use of your thumb or pinky.
You can also look into a stylus tool to use on your tablet, or employ talk-to-text features on your phone.
There are lots of options that can decrease how often you actually have to employ your pinky and thumb when you’re using your devices.
Stretch your fingers out
Before you pick up your device, lace your fingers together and push out your arms so that your fingers get a full stretch in the opposite direction.
This kind of stretching can help:
- extend the range of motion of your tendons and joints
- alleviate stiffness
- get your fingers ready for activity
Plan for rest
If you’re using your device for a sustained period of time, set an alarm to sound after you’ve been using it for an hour or so.
Plan regular rest periods for your fingers to decrease the strain on your joints, tendons, eyes, and neck.
Smartphone finger is a real condition and, if left untreated, can cause serious damage to your tendons.
Try prevention strategies and home remedies for your symptoms first, but speak to your doctor if the pain doesn’t go away.