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4 Common Smartphone-Related Overuse Injuries and How to Avoid Them

Most people are addicted to their smartphone, spending most of their time looking at the screen.
Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

We now live in the internet and smartphone era, making communication a lot easier than before. Social media has made it possible to connect with our friends and millions of other people worldwide, no matter where we are, as long as we have a phone and internet connection. With the advancement of technology, smartphones have become more than just a tool for calling and texting.

It’s pretty evident that mobile devices are a big part of our daily lives, and many of us can’t even imagine going a day without one. Our smartphones give us everything we need, from video calls and sending emails to taking pictures and playing games, right at our fingertips. We can even create and edit documents or pay our bills with them.

Consequently, the smartphone ownership of Americans today is increasing, which is now 85% compared to 35% in 2011.  When you can do all these things with only your phone, it becomes an irreplaceable commodity you simply can’t live without. 

The drawback, however, is that the more time you spend with your mobile devices, the more you put yourself at risk for overuse injuries. This article outlines four common smartphone-related injuries, their signs and symptoms, and tips on how to avoid them.

What is an overuse injury?

An overuse injury is any type of muscle or joint injury from tissue damage resulting from repetitive trauma over some time. It typically occurs from training errors such as exercising too long or taking on too much physical activity too quickly without giving adequate time for rest and recovery. Common examples of overuse injuries include blisters, strained muscles, tendonitis, and stress fractures.

In the same way, constant smartphone use can also cause a range of muscle and joint problems. Several individuals who use mobile phones too often have experienced pain, tingling, or numbness in their neck, thumb, elbow, pinky, or eyes. 

4 Common Overuse Injuries Associated with Smartphone Use

Texting or browsing social media with your phone may not be as physically straining as exercising, but repetitive use over long hours may still lead to a stress injury. Here are four common smartphone-related overuse injuries:

1. Text Neck

bending your neck while texting can cause several injuries to the neck, shoulders, and upper back
Photo by Ott Maidre on Pexels.com

Text neck syndrome is a repetitive stress injury caused by hunching your head forward or bending your neck over your smartphone for extended periods. Looking down on your mobile screen for hours may subject your body to poor postures, putting additional pressure and stress on your neck muscles. 

According to a 2022 study, 46% of university students in Saudi Arabia who are addicted to smartphones have experienced neck disorders over 12 months. Moreover, the prevalence of neck pain from smartphone overuse among students peaked in 2019 at 60.8% from only 39.2% in 2016.

Typically, your spine can support your head without issues as long as you stay relatively upright. However, it can’t hold as much weight when curved, which results from bending over one’s phone. 

The human head weighs around 10-12 pounds, but bending it at certain angles may increase the load on the cervical spine. For example, at a 15-degree angle, the weight rises to about 27 pounds; increase that angle to 60 degrees, and your neck will have to bear about 60 pounds. 

Over time, all the extra strain on the neck and upper back can speed up the process of wear and tear on your spinal column, causing degradation to the discs, which is usually associated with aging. 

Signs and symptoms:

  • Stiffness/tightness in shoulders and neck leading to a limited range of motion
  • Sharp or nagging pain in the neck and shoulders
  • Intermittent or constant headaches
  • Aching discomfort in the upper back

Smartphone Pro Tips: 

  • Bring your phone to eye level to keep your head straight and avoid curving your neck.
  • Relax your shoulders to maintain a good posture and reduce stress and pain in the upper and middle back.
  • Do slow, range-of-motion exercises to help your muscles relax and make you more resilient to joint injuries.
  • Take a tech break to avoid smartphone overuse.

Related: 7 Surprising Health Risks of Poor Posture (And What You Can Do About It)

2. Texting Thumb

Texting thumb, also called “gamers thumb,” is an injury that occurs when repetitive hand movements cause inflammation in the tendons of the thumb. Smartphone use requires a lot of thumb action, whether it’s texting, playing games, checking email, scrolling through social media, or even simply gripping the phone. You’re putting your thumb through a wide range of motion that may lead to pain and numbness. 

A new Nielsen study reports that over 40% of teens claim texting is their primary reason for getting a phone. The average American teenager sends around 3,339 texts per month. Meanwhile, another study by Ofcom says 93% of children between 12-15 years use mobile phones to play video games for about 12 hours a week. Combining these two activities increases the potential risk for overuse thumb injuries, particularly among teens. 

Since your thumb joints aren’t really made to text and swipe all day, your carpometacarpal joint, where your thumb connects to your hand, can swell and develop arthritis over time. It can also cause a condition called de Quarvain’s tenosynovitis or inflammation in the tissue around the tendons (synovium), which can be very painful. 

Signs and symptoms:

  • Popping or clicking feeling when moving your thumb (trigger thumb)
  • Painful to bend or straighten your thumb
  • Pain or swelling near the base of your thumb
  • Cramping, numbness, or weakness of hands and thumbs

Smartphone Pro Tips: 

  • Improve your posture by supporting your forearms when using your smartphone.
  • Instead of typing every letter, use abbreviations or predictive text to keep your messages short.
  • Try to use your index finger when texting or scrolling to limit the use of your thumb.
  • Try to text sparingly or make a call or use voice messages instead.

3. Smartphone Elbow

Taking selfies too often can put strain on the elbow, causing pain and discomfort
Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels.com

Smartphone elbow, or “selfie elbow,” is another concern in a long line of tech-related injuries. In medical terms, this condition is called cubital tunnel syndrome, which occurs from abnormal and repetitive loading of muscles around the elbow, leading to inflammation and pain. Bending your elbows in awkward positions or resting them on armchairs when typing can cause microfractures to the tendons and muscles of the forearm and wrists but holding your phone up while texting or over-extending your elbow when taking photos is equally bad.

The era of mobile devices with high-pixel front cameras has made many of us obsessed with taking selfies and uploading them almost instantly on social media. One study in the Journal of Community Health Management has found that the overall prevalence of selfie addiction is around 13.88%. With as many as 25% of smartphone users are experiencing selfie elbow. 

The problem with taking innumerable selfies is that it can strain the elbows from all the extension and flexion. It also places pressure on the ulnar nerve at the cubital tunnel causing eventual long-term nerve damage.

Signs and symptoms:

  • Pain and discomfort when taking a selfie
  • Irritation while lifting or gripping other objects
  • Twinge or a dull ache in the arm or mild swelling
  • Bruising, redness, or warmth around the elbow
  • Tingling and numbness on the ring and pinky finger, especially when the elbow is bent

Smartphone Pro Tips:

The best way to avoid smartphone elbow is to make a conscious effort to take pressure off the elbow, such as:

  • Alternating which arm to use when taking a photo
  • Utilizing hands-free Bluetooth phone technology
  • Changing your arm and hand position when using your phone

4. Eye Strain

Aside from causing injuries to the muscles and tendons, smartphone overuse can also strain your eyes. When you spend hours staring at your mobile screen, you blink about 66% less, which can cause dryness and itching to your eyes. Staring at the same small images at extended periods causes the muscles in your eyes, face, and neck to tense up, leading to headaches and other issues. 

Moreover, studies suggest that smartphone addiction is associated with poor sleep. The blue light emitted from modern phones can disrupt melatonin production, messing up your circadian rhythm and making it even harder to fall asleep and wake up the next day. Lack of sleep further stresses and irritates the eyes, resulting in blurred or double vision, bloodshot eyes, eye pain, and eye infections.

Related: Insomnia: Why Getting Poor Sleep Is Cause for Alarm

Signs and symptoms:

  • Watery or dry eyes
  • Sore, tired, burning, or itching eyes
  • Photophobia (increased sensitivity to light)
  • Headache
  • Blurred or double vision

Pro tips for smartphone overuse:

  • Avoid using your phone 2-3 hours before bedtime
  • Learn to lower the brightness of your phone when using it
  • Try to look away from your mobile screen every 15 minutes or so
  • Use eye drops to counter dryness

Conclusion: Cutting Back on Smartphone Use

While smartphones are a necessity in these modern times, using them too much may lead to several overuse injuries. With the constant use of devices, repetitive stress injuries, such as text neck and selfie elbows, are becoming even more common among excessive users. And if left untreated, some of these injuries can cause long-term damage. 

Lifestyle changes can be an effective way to overcome smartphone overuse. Most overuse injuries improve with resting or taking a break from tech use. Others may require over-the-counter medications or occupational therapy, depending on the severity. If symptoms do not go away, be sure to seek professional medical attention before it gets worse. 

In the case of drug addiction, the best way to address it is to stop using drugs altogether. But for smartphone addicts, cutting back on smartphone use comes a long way. If you can take a break from your phone, the better. But if not, try to observe proper posture and use both hands when using your phone, at the very least. 

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