High-Tech Hazards: Technology, Thumb Pain, and Cellphone Elbow

elbow painAs technology continues to work hard to make our lives more convenient and entertaining, so too is the other side of the coin — the pain points of technology.

Beyond the frustrations or addictions that the latest technology brings it can also, literally, make our lives more painful and not always in ways we might expect.

In fact, some of the pain, fatigue or tension you may be feeling in your body right now is so subtle, that it may go unnoticed or take a while for you to put it together the collection of aches, pain, tension or inhibited movement as all being from one culprit.

This month’s consensus BodyQuirk appears to be thumb pain, with weakness on the wrist and forearm, and pain radiating all the way up to the elbow. A couple of our clients with this complaint, were even tested for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), only to find out that the results were not conclusive for CTS, but presented a definite nerve impingement.

Off we went to do some research to see what else could be happening and how we could adapt our approach to best fit their needs. The results of that research have been very interesting — it has even changed how we sit at the computer and how we use our own cell phones.

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome or Cellphone Elbow

It starts as an aching, tingling, numbness or burning in your hand with forearm and elbow pain, all of which seem to be worse when you are talking on your cell phone or using the computer. These symptoms may indicate Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, now also referred as “cellphone elbow.”

What Causes Cellphone Elbow?

At the elbow the Ulnar nerve travels through a tunnel of tissue (cubital tunnel) that runs under a bump (medial epicondyle) of bone at the inside of your elbow. The spot where the nerve runs under the bump is more commonly known as the “funny bone.” It is here that the nerve is close to your skin, so bumping causes a shock like pain. The ulnar nerve gives feeling to the little finger and half of the ring finger. It also controls most of the muscles of the hand that help with fine movements, and some of the bigger muscles in the forearm that help to make a strong grip.

So, not only is your cell phone posing health issues with its electromagnetic emissions, it’s also causing you to hold your elbow at a more than 90 degree angle for extended periods of time (if you don’t use a head set). Of course, your cell phone is not the only way this malady can occur — just the most common. the second most common way for this to present itself these days is as a result of long periods, sitting at a desk, while either leaning your elbow against your desk or the arms of a chair, or due to flexing of the elbow as you use the computer. There are also those who sleep with their elbow flexed, causing chronic elbow pain.

In all these cases, the Ulnar nerve – which runs from underneath the collarbone down along the interior of the upper arm, and then through the cubital tunnel (located on the inner side of your elbow) – can become compressed, causing symptoms that can be felt from your hand to your forearm. The nerve runs through the arm and into the palm side of the hand.

In Cubital Tunnel Syndrome the Ulnar nerve gets pinched behind the elbow and holding a cellphone up to the ear can stress the nerve. It can become bad enough to cause the person to lose strength in their affected hand.


Nerve-Compression and Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Cubital tunnel syndrome is a nerve-compression syndrome and is the second most common type of its kind of syndrome. When you keep the elbow hyper-flexed for long periods of time, the ulnar nerve is stretched, and the tunnel the nerve is travels through is kinked and narrowed. This eventually causes the nerve to misfire and worsen over time with repetitious activity.

How To Avoid Cell Phone Elbow

  • Avoid activities that require that you keep your arm bent for long periods of time.
  • While using a computer make sure that your chair is not too low and do not rest your elbow on the armrest.
  • Avoid leaning on your elbow or putting pressure on the inside of your arm (driving with your arm resting the open window).
  • Loosely wrap your arm in a towel or use an elbow pad backwards to keep your elbow straight at night.
  • Get regular massages, this helps to move toxins and lactic acid out of the area and keep inflammation down, helping the nerve rest and stopping it from misfiring.

If none of this things alleviate the pain and numbness, see your doctor and have a nerve conduction test done to help determine how well the nerve is working and to help identify where it is being compressed. Sometimes your doctor will order x-rays to rule out bone spurs, arthritis or other places that the bone may be compressing the nerve.

After tests are done there are several ways that cell phone elbow can be treated like using non steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine, steroid injections (also to reduce inflammation), bracing or splinting and nerve gliding exercises like those in the video below.

If all of this fails to relieve your symptoms, then surgical options exist to deal with it, but are most often used only when there is muscle wasting.

If you’d like help to avoid cell phone elbow, contact us today.

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