Tap. Scroll. Swipe. Type.
Your thumbs do a lot of work when you use your phone. And if you’re starting to feel pain at the base of your thumbs and in your wrists, these digits are probably working overtime.
In his practice in Penticton, B.C., Paul Girard, a certified hand therapist and member of the Physiotherapy Association of British Columbia, occasionally treats cases of de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, or so-called “texting thumb,” in individuals complaining of soreness from using their handheld devices.
This overuse injury affects the tendons running along the thumb-side of the wrist, and is characterized by swelling, pain and hampered function, Girard says.
To visualize what’s going on, think of your thumb as a puppet and these tendons as the puppet strings, he says. When you’re holding up your phone, these tendons make a steep, right-angled turn and “floss" back-and-forth to control your thumbs.
“If you’re holding your wrist in an odd position and you’re texting a lot, this flossing can cause basically friction and you get swelling and pain and the tendon doesn’t work well anymore,” he explains.
Giving up your phone would certainly help, but let’s face it: that’s not realistic. Girard suggests introducing some modifications, such as using voice-recognition software, setting your phone down instead of holding it in your hand when you text, or using your fingers more to give your thumbs a break.
He also advises applying heat, such as with a microwavable heating pad and massage to promote blood flow. Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, icing isn’t advisable as it merely numbs the area and doesn’t affect the type of swelling that occurs with texting thumb, he says.
Gentle stretching may also be beneficial, but don’t go overboard. Try this: Put your thumb inside your fist. If you can tolerate it, bend at the wrist and move your fist down and away from the thumb-side of your wrist toward the pinkie-side.
Because hand and wrist movements involve such a complex and intricate network of muscles and tendons, it’s debatable whether strengthening specific muscles will do much good, Girard says. Instead, you’re better off taking a break from your phone and doing an aerobic activity, such as taking a walk or a hike, which will promote blood flow and healing.
After all, those tiny muscles in your hand don’t need more work; they need less.
“They’re not exactly weak. They’re just overused and they need more of a rest,” Girard explains, noting people often mistakenly think they need to strengthen their texting muscles, “and that’s only going to cause more problems.”
For the vast majority of people who incorporate these measures, the pain will go away. But in rare cases, custom splinting and steroid injections may be recommended. If it’s still bothering you after three to four weeks, Girard advises that you see a professional.