Can smartphones cause carpal tunnel syndrome?

Young adult businesswoman’s hands using smartphone

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?

Let’s review 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.

That being said, certain physical activities may exacerbate symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome — and one such activity is holding a cellphone 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 cellphone.

What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when excessive pressure is placed on the median nerve as it crosses the wrist. The median nerve stops working normally as soon as the pressure over the nerve increases above a certain threshold (typically 30 mm Hg) and stays above that threshold for longer than a few minutes.

In people who have mild carpal tunnel syndrome, the space through which the nerve travels gets smaller, and therefore the pressure within the carpal tunnel is more likely to increase with wrist flexion/extension.

In people with severe carpal tunnel syndrome, the space through which the nerve travels is so small that the pressure within the carpal tunnel is above the 30 mm Hg threshold even when the wrist is held in neutral position.

The most common cause of 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.

Carpal tunnel symptoms

The main symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include hand numbness and tingling — particularly in the thumb, index and middle fingers, but it can happen in all fingers. Often, these symptoms are most noticeable at nighttime while we’re trying to sleep. People with carpal tunnel syndrome will often wake up in the middle of the night due to painful hand numbness or burning.

If carpal tunnel syndrome becomes more severe, it can also cause some atrophy of the muscles at the base of the palm and even cause weakness when trying to use the thumb.

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.

Phone use 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. Texting, or any repetitive activity, can cause wrist/hand/finger/thumb pain if mindful breaks or rest aren't taken.

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.

Maintaining flexibility and mobility in the wrist is also largely important in preventing certain types of wrist injuries. Specific exercises may be recommended depending on the cause of pain.

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.

Are there are wrist devices that can be worn to prevent pain?

When carpal tunnel syndrome is first diagnosed, we often recommend the patient wear a wrist brace that keeps the wrist straight at night for about six weeks. Wrist braces may also be worn for other causes of wrist pain, but it’s important to know the reason for the wrist pain first, because some causes may be better managed with other treatments ranging from oral medications, injections, occupational therapy or even surgery.


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