Awkward positioning or sustained awkward postures are culprits of repetitive strain injuries (also known as cumulative trauma disorders, overuse injuries, or musculoskeletal disorders). Orthopedic surgeons are seeing with increasing frequency an injury that technically is called cubital tunnel syndrome but is now commonly being dubbed “cell phone elbow”.
The ulnar nerve originates in the spinal cord at the neck, passes down the arm, through a groove in the elbow and down to the small finger and the ring finger. When you bump your “funny bone”, you are actually bumping this nerve which can cause a zinging, electrical pain or shock down the arm. Holding the elbow bent, such as when holding a cell phone to the ear, stretches the nerve tautly through the groove at the elbow. When this nerve is stretched for prolonged periods of time, it affects the nerve function and can cause aching down the forearm as well as numbness or tingling in the small finger and ring finger. With sustained pressure on the nerve, the small muscles in the hand can become weak and waste away. This can cause problems with coordination and fine-motor movements. In advanced cases, the small finger and the ring finger can “claw” and be difficult to straighten. It may also feel as if the fingers become cramped.
To avoid the pain and symptoms of cell phone elbow use a blue tooth so you do not have to hold the phone to your ear. If you do hold the phone, switch hands frequently and keep conversations short. Ease pressure and stretch on the nerve at other times as well by not leaning on the elbows and avoiding other activities that hold the elbow in a bent position - let your hair dry naturally rather than blow drying it, don't rest the arm along the window while driving, and try to sleep with the elbows straight. As many people tend to sleep in the “fetal position” with the elbows bent, special splints or braces can be used at night to help you improve elbow positioning in severe cases. Cubital tunnel syndrome can also be common in weight lifters. If you perform a strengthening program at the gym, stretch and ice afterwards and be particularly cautious of aggravating cell-phone elbow symptoms.
Marji Hajic is an Occupational Therapist and a Certified Hand Therapist practicing at the Hand Therapy & Occupational Fitness Center in Santa Barbara, California. For more information on hand and upper extremity injuries, prevention and recovery, visit Hand Health Resources.