How to avoid texting thumb and other hand injuries

by Kaiser Permanente |
Young woman on couch holds smartphone in her hands

These days, we’re on our smartphones — a lot. Whether working from home, reading daily news, or keeping in touch with friends and family, our mobile phones can help us communicate and feel connected. According to a recent survey, COVID-19’s impact on daily life has also affected our phone use, and text messaging is more popular than ever.*

But all that texting, swiping, and scrolling can lead to physical health issues. Eye strain and neck pain, as well as issues in the hands, wrists, and especially thumbs, can all be signs you’re spending too much time on your phone.

Now there’s a name for the pain and strain in the thumb: texting thumb. Also called gamer’s thumb or trigger thumb, texting thumb has become a common term to describe pain caused when the tendons that power the motion of the thumb become inflamed from overuse.

“We see people come in all the time with hand problems like texting thumb. Hand or wrist pain used to be from typing on keyboards, but now it’s from using cell phones,” says Neil Harness, MD, an orthopedic doctor and hand surgeon at Kaiser Permanente.

The problems at hand

According to Dr. Harness, our hands and thumbs can do these common smartphone motions like texting, scrolling, and grasping. But smartphone overuse and repetition put stress on our hands, leading to inflammation and pain. There are different types of hand pain:

  • Texting thumb — Pain, inflammation, and swelling of thumb tendons caused by repetitive motion. When the pain is localized to the palm side of the thumb where it meets the hand, it’s likely trigger thumb. In some cases, the thumb will pop or catch suddenly with movement. When the pain occurs with thumb movement but is localized to the side of your wrist, it could be diagnosed as a specific hand pain called de Quervain’s tenosynovitis.
  • Tendonitis — Inflammation of a tendon, which is the cord attaching a muscle to a bone, usually due to overuse or injury.
  • Arthritis — Inflammation, swelling, and tenderness of one or more joints. You won’t develop arthritis due to smartphone use, but you can aggravate it.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome — A numbness, tingling, or weakness in the hand caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist.

Beyond the thumb, other fingers can also fall victim to overuse. When working on laptops or watching our devices in bed, you may flex your elbows in a way that kinks a nerve, affecting the pinky and ring fingers. So, it’s important to be aware of how your hands and arms feel when they’re positioned certain ways for long periods of time.

4 tips for smartphone hand relief

Whether you’re currently experiencing pain or just want to know how to take better care of your hands, here are a few helpful reminders from Dr. Harness:

  • Take breaks. Try to limit your time on your smartphone — especially the amount you spend grasping your phone while you text, scroll, and swipe with your thumb. If you can’t reduce your time, be sure to take frequent breaks. You can also use the voice dictation feature when texting or emailing to give your thumb a break.
  • Switch hands. Use your opposite hand to hold your phone, and then type or tap with your index finger to give your thumb a break.
  • Find your best fit. When choosing a phone, size matters. Just like buying a pair of shoes, you want to find the fit that’s most comfortable for you. If you notice yourself stretching your thumb too far around to reach your phone screen, it’s probably too large for your hand size. You can also look into smartphone ergonomics, for example, using pop sockets. This smartphone accessory sticks to the back of your phone and can be used to help give you a better grip or prop up your phone — so you can relax your fingers and palms.
  • Stretch it out. There are many simple stretches you can try. Gently stretching your thumb or rotating your wrists are common carpal tunnel syndrome stretches. And stretches for wrist tendinitis include flexing and extending your fingers. Or, try hand flips:
    • While seated, put your forearm on your thigh, palm-side down.
    • Flip your hand over so the back of it rests on your thigh and your palm faces up. Make sure to keep your forearm on your thigh.
    • Alternate between palm up and palm down 8 to 12 times.

Check with your primary care doctor or a physical therapist if you start to experience pain in your thumb, wrist, or hand. If your pain becomes severe, your doctor may recommend you stop using your mobile phone for a period of time (also known as immobilization). A hand brace or thumb brace can also help, and anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen can provide temporary relief. In more serious cases, doctors will give steroid injections or recommend a small surgery. However, you can care for most minor hand injuries at home with the proper care instructions.

Bottom line: The simplest way to avoid texting thumb is by simply putting down your device. So, be mindful of your smartphone habits and remember to take breaks. Your body and mind will thank you.

* Chandra Steele, “Has the Pandemic Changed How You Use Your Phone?,” PC Mag, October 21, 2020.