How to prevent carpal tunnel and other wrist injuries brought on by excessive tech use
Swiping through Instagram all day long can seem like a (relatively) harmless hobby. But do you ever find yourself needing to stretch out your arms afterward? Or do you find yourself icing your wrist after a long day at work? It may be difficult to come to terms with, but all your technology use could be putting strain on your wrists. Yes, those quick rounds of Fortnite or late-night texting sessions could be putting your wrists (and hands, elbows, and fingers) at risk for carpal tunnel and other injuries. It's all a case of potential overuse, which is easy to push too far in an age where we're all constantly on our phones, computers, and tablets. And the overuse can lead to injuries that, frankly, aren't very fun to deal with.
Physical ailments related to using computer and smartphones are on the rise, according to Dr. Renee Enriquez, physician and professor of of physical medicine and rehabilitation at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
"People have been using their upper extremities and sitting and being in positions that are consistent with poor ergonomic function and poor ergonomic positioning," Enriquez told clinical information website Healio.com. These injuries are colloquially known as "selfie elbow" and "texting thumb," but they affect patients' elbows, wrists, and hands, all consistent with additional mobile phone use. Many people still end up with various issues that can arise from extended usage of smartphones, while others still find themselves struggling with general pain that travels all the way up through their arm from not just using their tech gadgets, but simply holding them.
And there's one frustrating illness that comes for many who use their wrists often with keyboarding for their job or simply browsing the internet too regularly: carpal tunnel.
What is carpal tunnel, and why does it matter?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is the name of a set of symptoms that result from an injury to the median nerve in your wrist. It's one of the most common overuse injuries and it can cause a litany of uncomfortable side effects, including numbness and tingling in the arm and weakness, making it difficult to perform job duties or play Pokemon Go in your downtime. But when your job requires that you're "always on," it can be tough to manage the symptoms once they manifest.
Commercial truck driver dispatcher Katherine Tharp tells Mic that she'd been experiencing carpal tunnel, likely brought on by working on a computer for hours at a time, for years, though has just been managing the pain with medication and rest when she can.
"I got to a point where my thumb would feel tingly and and numb, like it had fallen asleep. I didn't feel very coordinated anymore. It was becoming hard to type," Tharp says.
"Carpal tunnel can be exacerbated by several things: long hours at the computer, improper ergonomics, and pushing yourself to your physical limits. But you don't have to be working a million hours a week to be at risk for it. You can start developing systems even after a few weeks' worth of consistent computer usage," Louisville-based physician and hand/wrist specialist Dr. John Niklaus tells Mic.
"I see more and more patients coming in who spend a lot of time texting or typing too long on the job complaining that they're losing feeling in their extremities, and often the first step in treatment is to lay off the electronics. And they tell me they can't, or they don't want to."
How is carpal tunnel treated?
Carpal tunnel release surgery is often suggested as a solution in addition to rest and stretching (or medication), though it also obviously involves less electronic use for at least a few weeks afterward during recovery. During the surgery, the transverse carpal ligament in the wrist is cut, and this releases pressure on the median nerve that's affected. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, it's generally an outpatient surgery, and recovery can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months. It's a very real alternative to rest and pain management aside from just giving up electronic usage "cold turkey," which typically isn't an option for most — but you still have to give up time in the interim while you wait to heal. Many, like Tharp, can't afford to take the risk since it may not resolve the problem completely.
"It's not 100% guaranteed that it'll fix the issue," she says. "And I can't afford to take the two weeks off of work I'd need to heal up afterward." For many, these injuries are just part of the job, and difficult to avoid. I'm one of those people. I've been treated for carpal tunnel off and on for a few years, but surgery simply isn't on my radar and likely never will be.
My carpal tunnel stems from my brief stint in the medical field. An early part of my career meant transcribing medical reports from doctors as they sent over electronic dictation meant to be listened to, edited for clarity, and then electronically delivered to a patient's chart.
I worked regular hours, but the pace at which I worked required me to be able to type lightning-quick at a consistent pace. I had been using the internet my entire life, but I didn't realize what kind of toll the job had been taking on my wrists...until one day I woke up with the same kind of numbness Katherine described. Typing was an integral part of my job though, so I couldn't just stop. Multiple visits to the doctor netted me wrist braces and pain medication that did nothing to quell the issue until finally the diagnosis was made — and a surgical suggestion, of course. Like many others, I've just simply learned to deal with it.
"I get flare-ups all the time," Thrap says. "I do a lot of gardening and play with my kids, and I'll get the throbbing pain again. I have to stop and ice my wrist and take it easy for a while. It goes away, but I'm always a little frustrated that it keeps coming back."
How to tell carpal tunnel from a repetitive strain injury
But just because you're having wrist pain that sounds similar to what's been described here, that doesn't automatically mean you should jump to the conclusion that it's carpal tunnel. It could be a an RSI, or a repetitive strain injury. RSI can affect your wrist, elbow, and shoulder, and occurs from performing repetitive tasks over and over again. It's not localized to using technology, but given that we make the same movements over and over again while interacting with our devices like computers and phones, those activities can be a huge culprit.
Medical coding specialist Gabrielle Brooks tells Mic that she incurred a repetitive stress injury simply through performing typical job duties. "Most of my job is really based around keying numbers into a computer all day," she explained in a phone call. "I can't just not key, and then I have all this stuff to do when I get home. I don't know how I can avoid using my phone or computer or other things like that when it's part of my career."
Treating RSI, according to Dr. Niklaus, involves more stretches and "therapeutic motions" of the hands. It's a much less involved prospect than working out a way to lessen the pain from carpal tunnel, thankfully, though the pain from both injuries may feel similar. You can use hot and cold packs, undergo professional massages, and take anti-inflammatory medication as well, but as Dr. Niklaus put it, "rest is the most beneficial treatment you could possibly have here." If you've incurred the injury from using your wrists and hands too much, it makes sense that the way out involves using them less.
Retail manager Elizabeth White incurred an RSI while working in the deli section at a popular grocery chain store. "Slicing meats and cheeses all day with the slicer had me always making the same movements over and over," she told Mic. "But I was able to kind of manage it by changing departments and working in other parts of the store for a while before I was a manager. So I didn't have to do the same kind of thing [...] None of that was really stressful on my hand." In White's case, laying off the motions that caused her pain eventually caused it to subside.
What to do if you think you've got carpal tunnel or an RSI
The first step in determining which injury you have (or if you're just feeling strain from light overuse) is a visit to a medical professional. But if that isn't a viable option, you can start by resting your wrists, icing them, or even purchasing special wrist braces made for people suffering from the same ailment. You can purchase them from medical specialty stores, or even department stores like Walmart or Target. Amazon has a decent selection as well, and many of them are inexpensive. I have used several braces from the FUTURO brand, for example, and while they're initially uncomfortable, they do tend to help force your hand into a more comfortable position.
If you happen to find yourself affected by either type of injury, however, it's not the end of the world. Dealing with them can still be very painful and debilitating, but it doesn't mean you have to lay off your favorite hobbies or quit working. The road to recovery may be uncomfortable and lengthy, but in the end the only person you really have to take care of yourself is you — and you have to make the decision to start healing in a way that works best for your lifestyle.