Can smartphones cause carpal tunnel syndrome?

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Most of us are guilty of spending too much time on our phones. After a while, all that swiping and scrolling may feel like it’s taking a toll. Your wrist might ache, or your hand could feel numb or tingly.

Could it be the sign of a greater problem?

Here, I’ll explain what you might be experiencing when you have wrist pain after using your phone — starting with the question that concerns a lot of people.

Can smartphones cause carpal tunnel syndrome?

From our current understanding of carpal tunnel syndrome, smartphones cannot cause it. 

Carpal tunnel syndrome is when there’s excessive pressure on the median nerve as it crosses the wrist. The most common reason for carpal tunnel syndrome is idiopathic — it just happens and we cannot point to a specific cause.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is associated with other diagnoses such as diabetes or hypothyroidism, but there is limited evidence that any specific physical activity actually causes carpal tunnel syndrome. That being said, certain physical activities may exacerbate symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome — and one such activity is holding a cell phone to your ear. Many patients will note the onset of symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome (numbness/tingling in the hand) as they are talking on their cell phone.

Can smartphones cause other wrist pain?

Smartphones can cause wrist pain if the wrist is held in an awkward position for a long time.  If you’re going to hold your cell phone for a prolonged period of time, try to keep your wrist in a neutral position — wrist neither flexed nor extended.

Phones may also cause what’s known as “texting thumb,” which isn’t a diagnosis but refers to wrist, hand or thumb pain associated with a smart device.

How can you prevent smartphone-related wrist pain?

In general, avoid holding your wrist in a single position for a prolonged period of time. Moving your wrist frequently can help prevent stiffness and keeps all the structures in and around the wrist gliding.

If you’ve already done damage to your wrist, what are your options?

It’s not unusual for people to develop a few hours or even a few days of wrist pain or hand numbness and tingling after repetitive activities. If over-the-counter medications and rest do not resolve the symptoms within a week, and the symptoms are constant and severe in nature, then you should consider a formal evaluation by a hand surgeon. If your symptoms occur after an injury, I strongly recommend a formal evaluation, as some injuries are best diagnosed and treated early.

Kanu Goyal is an orthopedic hand and upper extremity surgeon at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.