3Qs: Two thumbs down

Physical therapy professor Jack Dennerlein examines a new health concern among mobile-phone users: texting thumb. Photo: istockphoto

Mobile-​​phone users who send dozens—or even hun­dreds—of text mes­sages per day may have begun to notice pain, tin­gling or numb­ness in their thumbs from exces­sive button pushing. Northeastern University news office asked Jack Den­ner­lein, a pro­fessor of phys­ical therapy in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, to explain the growing health con­cern among obses­sive smart­phone users: the so-​​called tex­ting thumb.

How serious of an injury is texting thumb? Have other cases of physical injuries related to smartphone use been reported?

To date most of the injuries have been , sore­ness, and dis­com­fort reported with thumbs, wrists, shoul­ders and the neck. The most serious cases reported are severe ten­dinitis, with pain some­times reaching levels that pre­vent people from main­taining thumb-​​intensive tasks. Most cases, how­ever, report low levels of pain symp­toms. The best study exam­ining such injuries com­pleted in Canada sug­gests that longer dura­tion of tex­ting increases the like­li­ness of reporting pain at the base of the thumb.

Children have embraced technology at a younger age than even before. What physical effect can long-term smartphone use have later in life or on future generations?

We don't yet know the long-​​term effects. Based on other types of injuries to the mus­cu­loskeletal system, how­ever, there is a chance that symp­toms from acute expo­sures can lead to chronic issues, such as pre­ma­ture arthritis. To date, though, there has yet to be a prospec­tive study to thor­oughly answer this question.

What are some ways to prevent or alleviate finger and wrist pain associated with excessive smartphone usage?

There are sev­eral things you could do:

  • Take breaks. Increasing the frequency of breaks helps even if they are short.
  • Switch up how you text. If you often use your thumbs, switch to using your fingers to share the load.
  • Use different devices to text, such as a desktop or notebook computer.
  • Use preprogrammed responses in your smartphone.
  • Use voice controls or speech recognition if possible.

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