It sounds like something a frustrated parent would say to a teen: “Stop texting or you’ll break your thumbs!”
But there could be a kernel of truth in that admonition.
A new study from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, published in the June 2017 issue of the journal Muscle & Nerve, suggests that overuse (more than five hours per day) of electronic devices, such as Smart Phones, could “adversely affect the median nerve within the carpal tunnel,” leading to numbness, tingling, and hand/wrist pain.
This small study examined the relationship between texting habits and hand pain in just 48 students aged 18 to 25, so it’s too soon to conclude that texting has adverse effects on the fingers, hands, and wrists. However, the authors’ conclusions are bolstered by previous research into repetitive motions and carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). A meta-analysis of six studies, published in 2015 in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences, suggests that certain types of movements used in operating a computer and mouse may irritate the median nerve in select populations, increasing their chances of developing symptoms of CTS, such as tendonitis, hand tingling, and numbness.
Before banning texts to save your teen’s thumbs, it’s important to note that the association is still tentative and that there are other factors that predispose certain individuals to develop hand, wrist, and finger pain and/or CTS as a result of excessive texting.
The research on texting and CTS may trigger a kind of déja vu, as you recall the rash of CTS cases that arose with the advent of computer use in the workplace during the 1980s. However, decades of research has shown that the development of CTS probably depends on many factors besides computer use — including prior injuries, medical conditions, and individual variations in wrist anatomy — that may be exacerbated by repetitive hand and wrist motions.
In fact, most of the cases of CTS that are caused by repetitive movements are associated with higher impact and/or more complex activities, such as:
The carpal tunnel is a hollow tube that connects the wrist to the hand and protects the tendons as well as the median nerve. The median nerve stretches from the forearm to the palm and is responsible for sensation in the thumb, index finger, middle finger and the thumb side of the ring finger. The carpal tunnel is protected by the carpal bones on the back and sides of the hand and by the transverse carpal ligament on the palm side of the hand.
In CTS, the median nerve is compromised by inflammation of the tendons or swelling within the carpal tunnel itself. When the median nerve is compressed, it cannot function optimally. Swelling in the carpal tunnel can also impede the flow of blood to the fingers and hand. Without treatment, CTS can result in permanent nerve damage.
With so many tendons and the all-important median nerve encased in the carpal tunnel, it’s easy to see why protecting its health is so important. It may take many years or even decades for damage to manifest in actual symptoms. Habits that are developed now can either support or damage carpal tunnel health over the long term.
While CTS is a disorder that is usually associated with people in midlife, there is at least one case study of a 14-year-old girl who developed tendinitis after texting four hours or more per day for more than two years. After presenting to her physician with thumb tenderness, pain, and swelling, she was diagnosed with tendinitis and treated with a splint and aspirin, plus urged to curtail and change her texting habits. Her symptoms resolved within two weeks.
If you or your kids are noticing any swelling in your fingers or thumbs, and/or feel pain or discomfort in your thumbs, wrists, elbows or fingers when you text, you may have developed tendinitis — an inflammation of the tendons that could eventually impinge the median nerve and lead to CTS. Symptoms such as tenderness, pain, and numbness in the thumbs, wrist, and/or fingers should be evaluated by a hand and wrist orthopedist as soon as possible. Learn more about tendinitis at WebMD.com.
If you and your family don’t yet have signs or symptoms of tendinitis or CTS, you might still want to consider modifying your texting habits to preserve the health of your fingers, thumbs, hands, and wrists:
If you suspect you may have wrist, hand, thumb or finger tendinitis and/or CTS, the Fitzmaurice Hand Institute can diagnose and treat you in the same center on the same day. Find us at 8841 E. Bell Rd. St #201 Scottsdale, AZ 85260, call our office or contact us via email form. We’re open from Monday to Friday from 8 am to 5 pm. For immediate same-day treatment, our Hand & Wrist Urgent Care center offers quick diagnosis and treatment for emergency finger, wrist, and arm injuries.