Text Thumb and Text Neck: Phone Pain FAQ

A person sitting down using his smartphone.

A long wait for a meal at a restaurant or killing time before an appointment is often filled by texting, tweeting and scrolling on our smartphones. As much fun — and utility — as these mobile timesinks add to our lives, they’re also increasingly giving us constant thumb and neck pain. University of Chicago Medicine hand expert Jason A. Strelzow, MD, and neck expert Christopher Hicks, MD, explain how to keep texting pain-free.

Text Thumb

What causes “text thumb?”

Strelzow: Patients frequently talk to me about “text thumb,” although the actual diagnosis for it is called de Quervain’s tenosynovitis. To understand what it is, you first have to understand the wrist’s anatomy. Tendons that run up our thumb allow us to move it and they come through a tunnel at the side of our wrist. If the thumb is overused, the tendon starts to swell. That, in turn causes the tunnel to swell, which causes the discomfort.

What can I do about “text thumb?”

The best thing any patient can do is use their thumb in moderation. First try an ergonomic change. If you’re using a two-handed grasp and typing with your thumbs, swap to a single hand. You can “peck and pick,” which is where you type with a straight finger instead of a flexed thumb. It is more difficult and not as fast, but it causes less pain.

Are there treatments for “text thumb?”

My first recommendation to patients is to take anti-inflammatories (such as ibuprofen or other over-the-counter medication) and give their thumb some rest. If their symptoms are especially severe, I’ve recommended using a hand brace that’s designed to prevent them from further irritating the tendon. The best thing a patient can do is use their thumb in moderation.

How long should I rest my hand?

There is no perfect amount of time to rest your hand. A good “rule of thumb” is give your hand a rest for as long as you’ve had the symptoms.

What advice do you have for people who chronically get “text thumb?”

Don’t push through it! Ignoring the pain in your hand can make it worse. If it’s bad enough that you have to take medications for it, you need to give your hand a long rest.

Text Neck

What do you recommend to people who have neck pain from phone use?

Hicks: The most important change people can make is correcting their posture. People have neck pain from reading and texting on their smartphones because they hold their phones in their laps or lower than eye level and it promotes terrible posture. Rounded shoulders or a forward-flexed neck puts stress on the musculature on the back of your neck. I tell people to put and hold their phones at eye level and their symptoms will usually improve.

What can someone with neck pain do?

With the help of a physical therapist or assistance from a website or video that breaks down the moves correctly, you want to stretch your upper trapezius area, your scalenes and your paraspinals, the muscles at the back of your neck. These areas are the most likely to spasm when you’re stressing your neck.

What happens if neck pain goes untreated?

Bad posture can lead to shoulder pain and predispose you to a condition called subacromial impingement, which is inflammation in your shoulder. It can also lead to disc protrusions in the back of your neck. Another possibility is stenosis, the narrowing of your spinal canal, which can cause a lot of pain and numbness. Suffering through it won’t do you any favors down the road.

Can “text neck” cause bone spurs at the back of the neck?

If you have bad posture for a long period of time it can lead to early arthritis. The wear and tear that bad posture causes on the disc at the top of your spinal column can lead it to develop osteophytes – bony protrusions.

Are these conditions a recent phenomenon?

You’d think so. But actually, this is nothing new. We’ve been talking about good posture about computer use for decades. The problem is that now it has become more prevalent as people spend more and more time on their smartphones.

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Jason Strelzow, MD

Jason A. Strelzow, MD, an expert in orthopaedic trauma, provides comprehensive care for patients with fractures and injuries throughout the body, with an additional emphasis on trauma of the upper extremity, including the hand.

Read more about Dr. Strelzow.
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Christopher Hicks, MD

Christopher Hick, MD, is a board-certified orthopaedist who specializes in non-operative sports medicine and provides comprehensive medical care for athletes and active patients alike.

Read more about Dr. Hicks