NWI hand surgeon discusses hand, elbow problems arising from excessive use of mobile devices

Dr. Ralph Richter Jr., medical director of the Hand Center of St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago, warns that overuse of smartphones, tablets and other electronics can cause pain and swelling in the hand, wrist and elbow.

There's no shortage of reasons people turn to their smartphones and tablets for extended periods of time.

The mobile devices can be excellent educational tools, useful at work and a good way to stay in touch with family and friends.

Then there's the allure of playing games or streaming shows and movies.

Whatever the reason, there is a need to take step away from our devices to give our bodies a rest.

“Moderation in all things is the key,” said Dr. Ralph Richter Jr., medical director of the Hand Center of St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago.

Richter, a hand surgeon, said it's possible for people to develop hand, wrist and elbow conditions from excessive use of mobile devices.

Some of those issues have taken on names such as “text claw” and “cellphone elbow,” Richter said.

Text claw refers to aching muscles and feelings of pain in the hands and wrists after extended device use.

Cellphone elbow, also known as cubital tunnel syndrome, “causes pain in the elbow, numbness and tingling in the hand,” Richter said. People also have experienced hand weakness or clumsiness because of it.

Of the conditions people can develop from overuse of mobile devices, De Quervain’s Disease is the one of the most common. It “causes pain and swelling in the wrist at the base of the thumb,” Richter said

The form of tendinitis also can cause other issues.

“Carpal tunnel syndrome can develop if the tendinitis compresses a nerve in the palm,” Richter said, “This causes numbness and tingling in the fingers.”

Though there are a variety of conditions that can arise from prolonged use of smartphones and tablets, it doesn't mean they happen frequently.

“It is actually fairly uncommon for people to develop these problems from the use of mobile devices,” Richter said. “Millions of people use these devices every day without issues.”

Physicians are still learning the long-term effects of prolonged use of the devices.

Those who are more susceptible to hand, wrist and elbow conditions or excessive users could be more likely to experience issues.

“Certain medical conditions such as diabetes and hereditary factors can predispose people to these conditions.” Richter said.

Pain and other problems with the extremities arise when the same muscles and tendons are used frequently during any repetitive activities. People also can put strain on their tissues by staying in awkward positions for an extended period of time.

“Resting on the elbows causes irritation of the ulnar nerve at the elbow,” which can contribute to cellphone elbow/cubital tunnel syndrome, Richter said.

There are ways to prevent pain when using mobile devices.

Richter recommends taking breaks when using smartphones and tablets and doing hand-stretching exercises. If hands-free devices and earphones are available, they should be used.

To avoid the awkward positions that can contribute to hand, wrist and elbow issues, people shouldn't rest on their elbows. It also can be helpful to adjust your stance.

“The most important things that can be done are fairly easy to implement,” Richter said.

If areas of the body become tender, cold packs can be applied to them.

“I would recommend that someone should see a physician if the symptoms last for more than two weeks and do not resolve with rest, cold packs and perhaps a short course of anti-inflammatory medications,” Richter said.

In addition, physicians could prescribe steroids to address symptoms. In severe cases, surgery might be needed to correct the problems.

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