AS more applications are created to simplify our daily lives with the tap of a screen, many of us are spending more time on our smartphones. Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic moving a lot of businesses, social gatherings and processes into the digital space, cellphone use is becoming more of a necessity than a luxury. Without even realising it, many of us spend at least three hours each day with the weight of a phone in our hand, performing the same repetitive movements of scrolling, tapping and swiping for hours at a time. While we have all been warned about the impact that excessive screen time can have on our eyes, little has been said about how it can affect other parts of the body, such as the hands.
A small study conducted by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that heavy users of smart devices (upwards of five hours per day) are more at risk for developing a painful condition in their hands — carpal tunnel syndrome. Medical doctor Hamish Hayden explains that, “Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve (one of the main nerves in the forearm) is compressed, which results in various symptoms ranging from pain, numbness or burning sensation in the wrist and hand.”
While research into the link between smartphone use and carpal tunnel syndrome is fairly new, Dr Hayden notes that the condition has been found to be more prevalent in people who perform repetitive tasks with their hands for long periods, without much change in posture.
“So it is more common in people who do things like hand washing, typing, and working with vibrating tools like jackhammers for hours at a time,” the doctor said. “Some studies also suggest that grasping an object for a long period of time, such as a cellphone or computer mouse, can place strain on the median nerve.”
Dr Hayden pointed out that women are at a greater risk for carpal tunnel syndrome than men.
“Women are about five times more likely than men to suffer from this disorder, and it is thought to be a result of their hands having a relatively smaller carpal tunnel area than men do,” he explained. “Menopause and pregnancy, and the changes in the body that happen as a result, can also be contributing factors to the prevalence in women.”
Though there is no foolproof way to prevent the condition, Dr Hayden recommends that you take certain preventative measures to protect your hands, especially if you spend a lot of time typing, scrolling, or performing repetitive tasks.
Take frequent breaks
“It is important that you take short breaks very often to stretch your fingers often if your job requires you to work with a cash register, keyboard, or hand-held device for long periods of time,” Dr Hayden said. “Especially if you feel your wrist or fingertips beginning to tingle, loosen your grip, clench and release your fist a few times to reduce the pressure on the nerve, and encourage good blood circulation in the area.”
Keep your hands warm
“Washing in cold water for a long period, or working in air conditioning, for example, can exacerbate the issue,” he pointed out. “Joint pain and stiffness love the cold, so try as much as possible to keep your hands warm and comfortable while working.”
Dr Hayden explained that obesity is a risk factor for carpal tunnel syndrome, and other conditions can contribute to it, such as arthritis, so it is a good idea to get moving. “The benefits of regular exercise on the entire body cannot be overstated, especially for people who are stationary for most of the day,” he prescribed.
Communicate with your doctor
“If you are feeling a constant pain or a tingling sensation in your forearm, wrist or fingers, then it is definitely something you should mention to your health care provider,” Dr Hayden cautioned. “It could simply be a case where your hands need to rest for a few days, but it could also be an indication of a more serious problem.”