Is Staying at Home Becoming a Pain in the Hand?

Written by: Vanessa Truxal, MS, OTR/L

Virtual Hand to Shoulder Therapy Fellow '20

It’s 10am. I am rapidly typing out an email to my mentor teacher for my online fellowship program in hand therapy. My thumbs fly across the screen of my iPhone as I punch send, then briefly scroll through the news headlines and the newsfeeds of my Facebook and Instagram accounts. My husband is upstairs on a teleconference with his work team, all of whom are telecommuting for the foreseeable future. Later, from our home in New Jersey, we will all join in a virtual happy hour with family members in different places around the country. As I finally put down my phone and snuggle up on the couch with my husband, I shake out my hands and massage the sore thumb joint that has, increasingly begun to ache and occasionally creak or crack. My husband stretches and rolls his neck, then goes to grab the BioFeeze he often applies to his neck and upper shoulders. These minor aches we both have are not at all uncommon.

For a long time now, our lives have been increasingly spent in the virtual world. With the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis much of the country, much of the world, is taking measures to physically distance ourselves as much as possible to prevent the spread of the disease. Almost overnight this has dramatically increased our use of electronic devices to connect with the outside world.

That is why it is even more important to consider the effects of extended use of electronic devices on our bodies. A number of musculoskeletal conditions are associated with poor positioning, posture, and body mechanics when using electronic devices for extended periods of time. Much has been written about the effect of these factors on the body when seated at a desk using computers, both desktop and laptop. However, when in the comfort of our own home, many of us are more likely to opt for alternative seating when using portable or mobile devices. For example, sitting on a couch, bed, beanbag chair, floor, stool or even standing. We are more likely to assume awkward postures with shoulders hunched, curved spine, flexed neck, and fully bent elbows. We rapidly tap out texts or emails, often with only our thumbs. We, often forcefully, touch, swipe, scroll, click, pinch, and expand our screens with our fingers. One study found that people use up to 8 times greater force when typing on a touch screen than a traditional keyboard due to the lack of tactile feedback. We do this while sometimes holding the smartphone with the same hand that is typing or scrolling. We may hold a tablet pinched between our thumb and fingers. The fingers we are not actively using to engage in these tasks are often held in a hovering position just over the surface of the screen, careful to avoid accidently touching another section of the screen.

The combination of poor posture and body mechanics with these rapid, precise movements, over an extended period of time is a recipe for repetitive strain injuries. Related symptoms may be mild to severe and usually develop gradually over time. These often include:

· Pain, aching or tenderness

· Stiffness

· Throbbing

· Tingling or numbness

· Weakness

· Cramping

Research has linked a number of medical conditions with extended use of mobile electronic devices (smart phones, tablets) including:

· Forward head posture

· De Quervain Tenosynovitis

· Stenosing Tenosynovitis (trigger thumb)

· Myofascial pain syndrome

· Carpal tunnel syndrome