Are All Of My Devices Giving Me Wrist Pain?

August 31, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this story:

A recent study published in Muscle & Nerve found that college students who overuse small electronic devices—such as phones, tablets and video game controls—are more likely to experience wrist and hand pain, as well as changes to a particular nerve in their hands.

“I’ve been doing this line of work for 30 years,” says Steven P. Lisser, M.D., an orthopedic hand and upper extremity specialist at Riverview Medical Center. “Twenty years ago, wrist pain was typically related to factory workers and people who regularly used computer keyboards. But now the pain is caused by things we’re doing at home. We just didn’t see that before.”

How Much Screen Time Do We Spend?

Considering how much time we spend on our devices, we shouldn’t be surprised to feel some of the effect. After all, the average American adult spends four hours a day on their devices, according to a 2017 Nielsen report.

That’s at least 240 minutes every day, or almost 1,500 hours a year. That’s a lot of time to hold your hands and wrists in unnatural positions, Dr. Lisser says.

“And if you don’t address the pain early on, it could get worse,” he says.

Common Conditions of Too Much Screen Time

The most common conditions associated with overuse of electronic devices are tendonitis, joint pain and carpel tunnel syndrome, during which the joints, tendons and nerves in the hand and wrist become irritated and inflamed. But some patients report more pain than others.

“This type of pain can be fairly difficult to deal with because we use our hands and wrists so much in daily life,” Dr. Lisser says. “Some patients have to seriously reduce their hand usage, while others can’t even get dressed because the pain is so extreme.”

How to Treat Hand and Wrist Pain

  1. First, identify the root case. “In my initial evaluation of a new patient, I get a detailed history of their device usage and activity level, and try to find if there’s any correlation,” Dr. Lisser says.
  2. Next, modify your usage. Lisser recommends taking more breaks from the device and evaluating how you hold it. For instance, if you hold your phone with both hands and type using both thumbs, you’re more likely to feel hand and wrist pain than if you hold your phone in one hand and use the other hand to type using your index finger.
  3. Do some “smartphone stretches.” While taking a break from your device, try some exercises like flexing your wrist and hand back and forth, and even giving the area a gentle massage to calm muscle spasms and improve circulation.
  4. Try cold and hot compresses. The heat relaxes the muscles, while the ice helps with swelling and throbbing. Taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, like Advil or Aleve, can also help with pain and inflammation.
  5. If you’re still experiencing pain, use a wrist splint. A splint will keep your hand in a better, albeit slightly restrictive, position.
  6. Consider physical therapy. Lastly, Dr. Lisser says, you can strengthen and stretch your hands and wrists in physical therapy.

If the problem persists for more than a couple weeks, or it worsens, consult a doctor. And whenever possible, use the hands-free option on your phone or other devices. The less time you put strain on your hands and wrists, the better.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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