Can a cell phone create pain?

Author: Brooke Carmen, PT, DPT: Doctor of Physical Therapy and Blog Contributor.  Loves fun informational gems.  Fitness addict and wannabe foodie. Emphasizes patient-specific treatment style and promotes goal-oriented care. Learn more about Brooke on here.

I love my cell phone.  I use it for gmail, calls, Instagram, SnapChat, and texting to name a few.  With all the whirlwind of social media, I tend to forget about what my cell phone habits could be doing to my body.  I decided to write this blog to sit down and answer the question my cell phone really my best friend or is it hurting me?

Cell phone use and neck pain sometimes go hand in hand.  Think about the position of your neck when you use your phone.  It’s rarely in “neutral.”  Neutral is the normal curvature of our spine which in the cervical spine (neck region) is a lordosis (concave) arch.  When I use my phone, my neck is usually in flexion (looking down) or side bent (tilted).  When you hold this position or any position for too long, the body’s tissues can become irritated.  This is because they are either being stretched or shortened out of their normal position.  When you do this daily, it can lead to imbalances with tight muscles, weakened muscles, stressed joints, etc.  In summary, the neck generally isn’t treated well with cell phone use.

Did you ever talk on the phone with your elbow bent, maybe with it resting on a counter, and notice pain on the outside of your hand?  In some cases, maybe tingling in your fingers?  When you bend your elbow for too long with activities like talking on the phone, you can irritate the ulnar nerve.  This nerve runs through something called the cubital tunnel in your elbow.  Here, it can become entrapped or over-stretched.  With cell phone use, you are generally putting the ulnar nerve on stretch which can lead to symptoms down the outside of your forearm.  You aren’t going to totally damage the nerve, but if you bump it a lot and stretch it enough, the pain can linger.  Cubital tunnel syndrome is the name for entrapment of this nerve in the elbow.  I have seen it with excessive cell phone use.

What about that little thumb of yours?  It works so so hard to help hold that phone and press all those tiny like buttons on Facebook.  Sometimes aches and pains of an overworked thumb can develop.  There is speculation whether cell phone use can cause arthritis in the thumb, but I didn’t find any articles to prove this.  If this were the case, it would likely develop in something called your CMC joint (carpometacarpal joint).  This is the most common spot for arthritis to develop in your hand, so maybe with excessive cell phone use, you could predispose yourself for some arthritis, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it just yet.

So the neck, elbow, and thumb don’t love cell phone use is what I’m concluding thus far.  Other parts of your body, like your thoracic spine (where your rib cage is) can get angry with cell phone use as well.  Don’t forget your eyes, too.  Cell phones aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, though, so I’m not saying don’t use your cell phone - we just need to use it smartly.  

Consider your neck, elbow, and back positions when using your cell phone.  Try to stay as close to proper posture as you can, not letting your neck jut out too far, taking rest breaks when looking down for too long, and giving that thumb a break.  These concepts fall under the category of ergonomics, which is the study of the body’s efficiency and positioning in the working environment.  Ergonomics is a concept that is frequently discussed in physical therapy because, in more cases than not, your body’s position with electronic use has a lot to do with pain that starts to develop.  Next time you feel a tweak in your neck, try to alter your body’s positioning.  Just by altering your body’s position, you can usually promote relief.

Don’t throw away your cell phone (Ha! Like anyone was thinking that.), but just be more conscious of it.  Consider these concepts and the term ergonomics where you are using it.  If you feel like you are too far down the hole with your pain and cell phone use, talk to me.  We just may have to be frenemies with our cell phones.