In our technology-driven world, if we’re not texting on our smartphones, we’re typing on our laptops. We dash out a quick text – I’m here got us table in the back – or we start playing Candy Crush and time just slips away. We don’t realize that all that tech usage can have a major impact on our wrists, hands, fingers and thumbs.
In the last 25 years, the time that adults and children spend on tech devices has increased rapidly. According to a 2017 Nielsen report, on average in the US, adults spend almost four hours a day on smartphones, tablets and computers.
All that typing and texting can cause wrist pain, numbness in your hands, and aching in your fingers. These symptoms can be annoying, but they are also early signs of carpal tunnel syndrome and the lesser-known, but no less painful, ulnar tunnel syndrome.
How do you know if your tech use or your job is affecting your health?
The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome and ulnar tunnel syndrome are similar, but happen in different parts of the hand, wrist and forearm. Both conditions can cause aching pain, shooting pain, burning sensation, numbness, tingling and a weakened grip. Here’s the difference:
Carpal tunnel syndrome: pain, numbness and tingling can occurs in the thumb, pointer finger and middle finger, inside of wrist and forearm. There can also pain in the palm of the hand.
Ulnar tunnel syndrome (also called cubital tunnel syndrome): The symptoms occur in the outer two fingers and run down the outside of the wrist and forearm.
If you want to prevent developing these syndromes, begin by taking note of your habits. How much time are you spending on your devices? Is there an opportunity to send voice command text messages instead of typing them out? Are your keyboard and mouse in proper alignment with your arms and wrists? Do you schedule “rest” time from work or your device?
And it’s not just adults who can develop these syndromes, we need to evaluate our kids’ habits, too. A recent survey of 1,000 teens and millennials found that a quarter of their respondents between the ages of 16 to 18 text more than 100 times each day. According to a report by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, kids ages 8 to 18 spend on average 1 hour and 20 minutes a day playing video games.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time for children 2 to 5 years old to one hour per day. For school age kids and teens, they recommend balancing media use with other healthy behaviors. Parents often associate “screen time” with “TV time” but screen time includes all devices.
My colleagues and I have treated teenagers for carpal and ulnar tunnel syndrome that developed because of texting and video gaming. These teens may go on to jobs that require hand and wrist movements that can exacerbate carpal and ulnar tunnel symptoms. It’s hard seeing teens develop injuries that may cause them pain the rest of their lives.
I would like to note that some people are predisposed to developing these conditions because of factors such as chronic illnesses like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, smaller wrist bones and other factors.
What Can You Do?
Begin with your office. Small changes can make a huge difference. This video demonstrates this:
You can also be smart about your typing habits at home. You don’t need to buy expensive home office furniture to ergonomically improve your laptop habits:
Factory jobs and other kinds of repetitive motions at work can also cause carpal and ulnar tunnel syndrome. Using a scoop to make dozens of trays of cookies in an industrial kitchen, or using scissors to cut material are repetitive motions that can lead to an injury. Examine your daily work routine and if you realize you are doing repetitive tasks, make a point of building in frequent short breaks for your hands. If you feel like you are developing carpal or ulnar tunnel syndrome at work (or any other repetitive motion injury) it’s important to report it to your supervisor right away and seek treatment.
How To Treat It
If you are feeling the first symptoms of carpal or ulnar tunnel syndrome, it’s a warning that you need to adjust your tech or work habits right away. If the pain does not go away, conservative treatment options can help, such as wrist support braces, massage and exercises. If addressed soon enough, you can prevent surgery and the cost and recovery time of missing work.
Procare is a common brand of wrist support brace that is easy to put on and adjust. This brace can be worn while typing or performing a repetitive task, and/or while sleeping to keep the wrist in a neutral position and relieve pressure on the nerves in the wrist.
To treat the pain caused by these syndromes, you can use over the counter pain medicine or acupuncture. For some, soft tissue massage is also helpful at stimulating the area and reducing pain.
The reality is, these devices are part of our lives. We rely on technology and repetitive tasks to do our work, to play sports and more. So the more we work on prevention and are informed on how to strengthen ours wrists and arms, and treat these injuries, the less pain we’ll feel. And, remember, give yourself some downtime. It can be the best remedy of all.