Mobile devices and repetitive stress injuries



Repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) have been around for as long as people have been carrying out repetitive tasks: the first formal diagnoses date back to the 1700s. RSIs, an umbrella term used to describe the pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons caused by repetitive movement and overuse, can affect virtually all movable parts of the body. Those who carry out manual labour and repetitive office work are among the most susceptible, but today, modern technology (particularly the use of smartphones and computers) is responsible for an upswing in RSI cases. 

You might have heard the phrases ‘texting thumb’ and ‘smartphone pinky’ being thrown around – these describe a form of RSI caused by excessive smartphone use known as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a painful wrist and hand disorder. The NHS defines CTS as a ‘pressure on a nerve in your wrist, which causes tingling, numbness, hand and finger pain, and weakened grip strength’, with symptoms that develop slowly, and tend to fluctuate. Excessive smartphone use can cause painful wrists as tendons connecting to the thumb can become inflamed at the wrist. Features that increase the risk of CTS include the overuse of a particular muscle or group of muscles, vibrating objects, and holding the same posture for prolonged periods. Sound familiar? Of course, as these behaviours are all characteristic of smartphone use.   

And it’s no secret that most of us spend longer on our phones than we’d like – official estimates for average daily phone usage stand at 3 hour 15 minutes, but for many of us, it’s much longer. A frequently cited study by Peter White and colleagues observed university students using devices (mobiles, tablets, laptops, computers and video game consoles) for 5 hours or more a day, and compared them with less frequent users. Researchers found a significant link between heavy use of devices (over 5 hours) and an increased likelihood of experiencing the wrist and hand discomfort typically seen in carpal tunnel syndrome sufferers. Crucially, few of those who spent less than five hours a day on their devices suffered from wrist or hand pain, but almost 50% of more frequent users did. So, those of us spending upwards of 5 hours a day on our devices could be tapping, swiping and scrolling our way to CTS symptoms. 

Whilst phones have developed from large rotary dials to hand-held computers, the human hand is yet to evolve to accommodate for the compact devices we currently use. We might be able to envision a future where mobile phone companies design a smartphone that eradicates all smartphone-related RSIs. Until then, we can better manage or prevent discomfort from our phone usage by limiting the duration of our texting or typing sessions, taking regular breaks from repetitive tasks, and making a habit of stretching our fingers, wrists and forearms frequently (especially after extend periods of device use).  

This article was brought to you by Dig Detox. Our mission is to help people use technology safely because we believe health is your most valuable asset. Please visit www.digdetox.com for more articles, research and information about the movement.

By Effie Webb

University of Oxford

First Published on 31 May 2020

Sources:

NHS

Medical News Today 

WebMD 

Cleveland Clinic