Are Our Smartphones Crippling Us?

Many, many more people have been killed in car accidents than ever died beneath the hooves and wheels of a horse-and-buggy, but never once does any right-thinking person think we should turn back the clock on our technology. We accept that, for most every high-tech innovation introduced that will make our lives easier, there will be some new annoyance or minor hitch introduced into our lives as well.

And so it is with the smartphone.

According to a report from Ericsson, by 2020 there will be 6.1 billion smartphone users across the globe. And all of them, like so many of you reading this now, will be candidates for the latest wave of innovation-rooted ailments.

When our evolutionary ancestors first started distinguishing themselves from the other fauna by growing opposable thumbs, little did they realize that one day their smartphone-obsessed descendants would be treated for “Blackberry thumb.” Named after the original indispensable business gadget with the fold-out keyboard, this repetitive strain injury is caused by overusing mobile phones to send emails and texts. With symptoms including pain at the radial side of the wrist, spasms, tenderness, occasional burning sensations and swelling of the thumbs, Blackberry thumb is was perhaps the first, and still among the most common, smartphone-induced ailments.

Cubital tunnel syndrome – or “cellphone elbow” – describes the damage we can do to ourselves because of the (constant) way we are pressing our phones to our ears. The cubital tunnel is the channel that contains our ulnar nerve – the “funny bone” nerve – and allows it to travel over the elbow and down to our hands. The pressure from the constant elbow-crooking damages that channel, and that damage results in pain, numbness and/or tingling in our forearm and hand.

Of course, millenials have mostly sworn off phone calls in favor of texting, but that doesn't mean they're off the hook. Reported cases of “text neck” – sometimes called “iPosture syndrome” – are on the rise. The affliction comes from flexing your neck for extended periods of time – your spinal cord doesn't handle Instagram addiction very well, as it turns out. It is too early to have any real clinical data, but doctors are concerned that the twinges and aches we associate with iPosture syndrome may be a forerunner of permanent arthritic damage if they go without treatment.

The repetitive fine motor activity we associate with texting can also lead to a brand of tendinitis doctors are now referring to as “text claw.”

Are these near-crippling maladies the price we have to pay for innovation? Let's hope not. In the meantime, become more aware of not only how much time you are spending with your smartphone, but also how you are holding it.