Are We Being Injured By Our Technology?

overuse injuries

Overuse injuries make up a large segment of the 4.6 million nonfatal workplace injuries annually according to the National Safety Council. This article is a look at how technology may be causing overuse injuries from technology use and gives you a Physical Therapist’s take on how to manage these issues.

Technology is great! Can you even remember what life was like before you had a cell phone to call your family member if you got separated at the store?

Or what did we do when we needed an immediate answer to a question before there was Google? Or how did we ever arrive at our vacation destination, or to anywhere new for that matter, before GPS?

Yes, technology has made our lives much easier and more efficient in many ways. But have you ever stopped to think about how it may be harming us? No, I don’t mean harming us socially, mentally, or emotionally- I mean physically.

With the invention of new technologies, new jobs and hobbies have been created which have led to new injuries. Typing at a computer all day has created carpal tunnel syndrome in many individuals. What used to be known as “gamer’s thumb” is now being called “texting thumb” from the increased typing and texting on our cell phones. And more recently we’ve been introduced to a new injury affectionately known as “text neck”.

So how do we enjoy our technology while at the same time prevent pain and injury? I’m glad you asked!

1. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS)

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

As many as 4-10 million Americans will suffer from CTS, but what is it exactly? It is a disorder caused by pressure on the median nerve as it passes through the carpal tunnel on the palm side of your wrist.

It typically begins with sensations of tingling in your fingers, excluding the pinky, but can gradually progress to burning, pain, and even muscle weakness if not properly treated in time. As it becomes more serious, people report that they find themselves easily dropping items from their hands.

overuse injury

What Can Cause Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

There are a variety of possible causes for CTS, however since we’re talking about technology, I’m going to focus on repetitive motions such as typing on a keyboard as the most common cause. For most of us, typing is a regular part of the job, yet most of us do not pay attention to our hand and wrist positions as we type.

As your wrists hang lower than your hands from the keyboard, you are placing extra stress at the joint by bringing the wrists into hyperextension. As you type for multiple hours in this position, this can cause inflammation at your wrists over time, thereby narrowing the space which your median nerve passes through.

What Can Be Done?

The treatments for CTS can be as varied as the causes. More conventional treatment begins with rest and ice to the wrist and forearms. It is also beneficial to do forearm and wrist stretches.

As symptoms progress, an orthopedist may recommend a wrist splint to wear during the day or just at night, along with cortisone injections to relieve the inflammation. More serious cases may require surgery to relieve pressure on the tendons and nerve in the area.

However, taking frequent rest breaks while typing, purchasing a wrist rest keyboard cushion, or changing your posture and seat height at the computer, may be enough to prevent overuse injuries like this from occurring in the first place.

2. Gamer’s Thumb (Texting Thumb)

What Is Gamer’s Thumb (Texting Thumb)?

Gamer’s thumb, which in today’s society has received the name of “texting thumb” or “smartphone thumb”, is more clinically known as De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis.  It is an inflammation of the tendon that passes below the carpal sheath near the base of the thumb. It can lead to pain and even numbness and tingling at the wrist and thumb.

What Can Cause Gamer’s Thumb?

Once again, repetitive motions of the flexors and abductor muscles of the thumb are largely responsible for Texting Thumb. This can include video gaming, using a computer mouse, and… you guessed it. Texting!

texting thumb

What Can Be Done?

Rest and ice are still the best treatments in the early stages of overuse injuries like texting thumb. Even sending the average of 50 text messages per day can lead to inflammation, especially if you solely text with your thumbs as opposed to alternating with your forefingers.

Pausing periodically throughout the day, performing hand and wrist stretches, or alternating between your dominant and non-dominant hand can take the tension off your thumb.

Hand and wrist splints, especially those with a thumb splint component can keep the tendon in a neutral position and limit excessive movement. For more severe cases, orthopedists can perform cortisone injections and even surgery to relieve the pressure on your abductor tendon.

3. Text Neck

What Is Text Neck?

Often this condition is associated with muscle and ligament soreness on the posterior side of the neck. Common side effects aside from pain can include an increase in headaches, numbness and tingling into the shoulders, shoulder blades and upper extremities, and even jaw problems. Long term, the sustained position can cause degenerative joint and disc disease of the cervical spine and disc herniations.

texting neck

What Can Cause It?

Text neck is often caused by a sustained neck flexion posture such as looking down at your cell phone. The average person will look at their cell phone for 2-4 hours per day while texting, emailing, using social media, and navigating the internet.

The average human head weighs 10-12 pounds, and for every inch it hangs forward, the weight and pressure of the head on your cervical spine doubles. For example, by holding your head forward by only one inch, the weight on your spine will increase to 20-24 pounds. At extreme flexion, there can be as much as an extra 60 pounds of pressure on the muscles, tendons, and ligaments on the back of your neck.

What Can Be Done?

Because text neck is produced by sustained posturing, alternating the position of your neck between looking down at your phone and other devices to looking ahead, or even looking up, can alleviate the tension on the neck extensor muscles.

trapezius stretch
Trapezius Stretch for Texting Neck

Holding your cell phone or tablet ahead of you instead of down on your lap will help to keep the head and neck in a neutral position, and using a tablet stand on a table or desk can also alleviate pressure on your wrists and elbows.

Neck stretches and postural exercises to strengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades will provide a better platform to support the neck and head and maintain the cervical spine in neutral while minimizing compression on the front of the neck.

Is Technology The Problem?

This is not to say that technology is evil; it only presents with new challenges. Technology in many ways has decreased the occurrence of musculoskeletal overuse injuries for jobs where heavy lifting is a normal part of the job. Diagnostics and electronics have minimized the strain on auto mechanics’ backs and assisted surgeons to become more precise during their operations.

Because of technology, however, we are typically not as active as we once were which means our muscles are weaker and less flexible, making us more prone to injury. To adapt to these changes, we need to be more proactive with our health so that we can continue to enjoy our technologies in the years to come.

Raichelle Cruz is a physical therapist with experience in a variety of settings since her time as a traveling PT.  Her area of specialty resides with the geriatric population, specifically related to neurology and balance. She currently resides with her husband and Shiba Inu (Mr. Yoshi) in Charleston, SC, and enjoys playing the tourist, working out, traveling, and reading. 

Tim Fraticelli DPT, MBA, CFP®

Tim Fraticelli is a Physical Therapist, Certified Financial Planner™ and founder of PTProgress.com. He loves to teach PTs and OTs ways to save time and money in and out of the clinic, especially when it comes to documentation or continuing education. Follow him on YouTube for weekly videos on ways to improve your financial health.