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Is Your Smartphone or Tablet an Injury Risk?
  • Robert Preidt
  • Posted February 25, 2020

Is Your Smartphone or Tablet an Injury Risk?

Here's a good reason to put your electronic devices down whenever you can: Experts say that using them incorrectly or too often can put you at risk for a range of injuries.

"When people position their hand, arm or neck in uncomfortable positions for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to strains and overuse injuries," said Dr. Michael Darowish, an orthopedic surgeon at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Overuse, nerve and neck injuries are the three common types of problems, he said.

Nearly all types of overuse injuries such as "swiper's thumb" and "iPad hand" are a type of tendonitis.

"Often, we find it's De Quervain's tenosynovitis, an inflammation of the tendons that abduct the thumb," Darowish said in a Penn State news release. "Pregnant women and parents who often lift their young kids are prone to it, too."

Tendonitis also may occur in the fingers or wrists. Pain while texting, aching and soreness are mild symptoms.

Rest, anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, and changes to activity can ease the pain. Severe cases may require cortisone injections, bracing or even surgery to calm the inflamed tendons, according to Darowish.

Nerve injuries include "cellphone elbow," which is likely irritation of the ulnar nerve that runs from the elbow to the small finger (cubital tunnel syndrome). Common symptoms include numbness in the ring and small fingers and having to "shake out" the hand. More severe symptoms include clumsiness and dropping things.

Similarly, carpal tunnel syndrome can be aggravated by improper ergonomics or overuse, causing numbness in the thumb, index and middle fingers.

In most cases, improving ergonomics will ease the symptoms. Other treatments include rest, anti-inflammatories and wrapping the elbow in a towel at night to prevent ulnar nerve irritation while sleeping, Darowish said.

Neck injuries include "text neck," which occurs when people spend a lot of time over a laptop or phone and develop neck spasms due to poor posture. Other symptoms may include tension headaches, grating or cracking of the neck.

Rest, exercise, and anti-inflammatory medications can help ease symptoms, according to Dr. Gregory Thompson, a neurosurgeon at Penn State Health St. Joseph Health System.

"Take the neck through a gentle range of motion by bending the head forward, backward, and turning side to side," Thompson said in the release. "If the neck pain began shooting down one or both arms or causes difficulty with walking, it may be more serious and one should see their primary care physician. Many of these issues are still responsive to nonoperative care."

More information

The American Occupational Therapy Association offers tips for safe smartphone use.

SOURCE: Penn State Health, news release, Feb. 12, 2020
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