From Elbows to Thumbs and Backs, Our Favorite Gadgets Can Sometimes Hurt
Injuries used to have a respectable story behind them -- a motorcycle accident, a sports injury, perhaps lifting something too heavy. But recently, doctors are nInstead of the usual carpal tunnel syndrome from typing, Dr. Peter Evans of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio began to see more of his patients coming in with an unexplained stinging, burning and tingly feeling in their hands.
"I started to think to myself, 'I must see dozens of people glued with a phone to their ears.' When did we do this before? We never did this. We grew up in a house with one phone in the house," said Evans.
That image of a bended arm helped Evans pin a reason to the pain.
"When the elbow is flexed greater than 90 degrees you're now stretching the nerve around your elbow," explained Evans, who authored a "one-minute" consultation about cell phone elbow in this week's Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.
Evans said the longer the nerve is stretched, the greater the risk of cutting off blood flow to the nerve.
"I'm one of the cell phone elbow guys, personally," said Dr. Peter Evans, who is the director of the Upper Extremity Center at The Cleveland Clinic.
The cell phone elbow sufferers are not alone. In the past two years, doctors have reported an array of rashes, nerve damage, phantom pain and inconvenient injuries that all seem to stem from our sit-and-click lifestyle.
Cell Phone Elbow
Formally called "cubital tunnel syndrome," cell phone elbow has much more in common with carpal tunnel syndrome than tennis elbow.
When a person continually stretches the nerve around the elbow, that particular nerve, the "ulnar nerve," can stop functioning properly.
"The analogy I give is putting your foot on the garden hose," said Evans. "It's the nerve when people say, 'I've hit my funny bone.'"
Source Behind Cell Phone Elbow Pain
The ulnar nerve controls feeling from the elbow into the ring and pinky fingers. But Evans said it also controls tiny muscles in the hand that work to grip objects. That's why people with cell phone elbow can have sensory symptoms or muscle control problems.
"It's typically an irritable elbow -- the tingling and numbness in the ring and small finger and then clumsiness," he said.
No formal studies have pinned down the prevalence of cell phone elbow, according to Evans. However, anecdotally, the problem is both rare and harder to detect in early stages.
"Clinically, day in and day out, we have 30-to-one carpal tunnel to cubital tunnel ratio," he said.
Usually, Evans' patients can reverse the symptoms simply by switching hands, cutting back on cell phone use, or using a hands-free device. In more serious cases, patients can wear a brace to bed to keep their arm extended and increase the blood flow in their elbows while they sleep.
But in some cases, the damage from cell phone elbow can be permanent.
"That's if they come when there's advanced neuropathy -- where the muscles have atrophied," said Evans.
Unfortunately, Evans said people with cell phone elbow come in with greater damage than the usual carpal tunnel syndrome.
"I think it must be a little bit more insidious. That's why people, not infrequently, present later," he said.
"We can usually improve numbness and pain, but when they come late we can't get their muscle control back," he said.
Compared to other technology-induced injuries, like Xbox thumb, Evans said cell phone elbow is, by far, more prevalent.
Video Game Muscle Spasms
Although both sit in front of a screen, a video gamer's pose differs widely from a couch potato TV-watcher's body.
A gamer sits forward, tense, eyes glued to the screen -- often for hours. As many early gamers reach middle age, doctors warn the muscle tensing habit can lead to injuries.
"I guess you could put it that I play a lot," Mitchel Gianoni, 21, told ABCNews.com. Gianoni is an avid gamer from Massachusetts who logs a few hours of video game play each day and counts the "Grand Theft Auto" games as some of his favorites.
"Yeah, it hurts, if I'm sitting uncomfortably," he said.
A child or teenager might walk away from hours of game playing with nothing more than a sore neck or back. But it's likely harder for an adult to do the same.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average video game player is 35 and has been playing for 12 years. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that adults average four to five hours each day spent on the computer or in front of the television.
Muscles, held in one position for a sustained period of time, can cause painful inflammation and sore areas. Trigger points -- tiny areas where the muscle spasms -- can occur, too.
"It's the muscle's way of saying, 'Whoa, we're stressed out!'" Dr. Michael Schmitz, director of pediatric pain medicine at Arkansas Children's Hospital, told ABCNews.com. "Eventually, you can't voluntarily relax that muscle."
Cell Phone Allergy
Putting the phone down after a long conversation has always left the check a bit warm, if not sweaty. But once people began to switch to cell phones, dermatologists noticed a curious skin condition in which people appeared to be allergic to their phones, or, more specifically, the nickel in their cell phones.
"Some people are extremely nickel-sensitive," Dr. Lionel Bercovitch, a professor of dermatology at Brown Medical School, told ABCNews.com.
Nickel is used in a wide variety of products, including jewelry, belt buckles and watch bands. The metal is actually the most common cause of contact dermatitis in the developed world.
People with a nickel allergy have symptoms that can range from redness to a rash or blisters.
Bercovitch suspects some cases involving cell phones are not being reported because the symptoms are being confused with facial eczema.
"My guess is that it's probably more common than we think, but it's just not widely recognized," he said.
Luckily, not all cell phones contain nickel.
In an attempt to get an idea of how many phones might have the metal, Bercovitch tested 22 models of cell phones to see which makes are likely to contain the metal.
Roughly half -- a total of 10 devices -- tested positive for the metal, according to her 2008 findings published the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Bercovitch found nickel in menu buttons, on decorative logos, around the edge of the screen and even on the handset if the paint was chipped.