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Texting thumb is real, but there are ways to find relief

Dr. Maureen O'Shaughnessy
Blog

/ by Maureen O'Shaughnessy, MD

Written by Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, an orthopaedic surgeon at the UK HealthCare Hand Center.

Our lives are practically inseparable from smart phones nowadays. We communicate, learn, share, play, entertain and record with them.

Unfortunately, our phones do not seem to have been designed with ergonomics in mind. Because of this, you may suffer from what is commonly called “texting thumb.”

I’ll break down what texting thumb is and how you can find relief from the discomfort.

What causes texting thumb?

As hand surgeons we have noticed a higher incidence of thumb aches and pains that coincides with the use of portable smart devices. Texting thumb is believed to be related to the abnormal use of the thumb caused by fine, repetitive motions in an irregular posture while using a device close to the body. 

What are the symptoms?

If you have texting thumb, you may feel pain throughout your thumb and wrist. Symptoms can range from a dull, throbbing ache to a more severe stabbing pain. 

Nerve irritation from either underlying carpal tunnel or the abnormal posture compressing the nerves to the thumb and hand can lead to numbness and tingling. Flexor tendonitis can develop in the thumb flexor and may eventually result in a trigger thumb. 

More proximal irritation at the wrist can develop and result in a form of tendonitis called DeQuervains tendonitis. 

If you have underlying arthritis at the base of your thumb, you might notice an exacerbation of pain. Younger patients may experience joint pain in the absence of arthritis, which is called arthralgia.

At what point should I see a doctor for these symptoms?

Pain that persists or that lasts longer than a few weeks warrants medical evaluation to ensure that nothing more serious is going on.

What will the doctor’s visit look like?

During our initial evaluation at the UK HealthCare Hand Center, we will examine you and go over your medical history. We will sometimes conduct imaging tests, such as radiographs, to help finalize a diagnosis. 

We also have in-house hand therapists, in addition to a network of trained therapists in the region, who are experts in caring for the hand.

How can I alleviate my symptoms? 

If symptoms persist, a brace can support your joints and tendons when not in use. Stretching exercises can also keep your hand and fingers loose to help prevent injury. 

Topical and oral anti-inflammatories might be useful, too. Topical diclofenac gel is now available over the counter and is a safe medication for pain relief without systemic side effects. 

What can I do to try to avoid texting thumb?

There are several things you can do to reduce your risk for texting thumb.

  1. Change the way you use your phone. Rings, buttons or collapsible tabs placed on the back of your phone can help incorporate your other digits and palm for more support.
  2. Try using both thumbs or several digits to type or scroll, rather than only using your dominant thumb.This can help disperse the forces. 
  3. Break up your screen time into smaller chunks.
  4. Use a larger phone or a pen stylus.
  5. Use the dictation option on your phone.

Learn more about the UK HealthCare Hand Center and the services it offers by visiting our website or call 859-323-4263 to make an appointment.

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