Mobile technology has completely changed the world—in many ways, for the better. But when it comes to our mobile devices, we might be getting too much of a good thing. Case in point: When people spend too much time chatting on their cell phones, they can develop a condition known as cell-phone elbow, or as I prefer to call it: “cellbow.” The technical term for this ailment is cubital tunnel syndrome, and symptoms include, pain, numbness, burning, or tingling in the forearms or hands as a result of a person’s arm being bent too tight for extended periods of time. If you haven’t heard of this condition before, you might be surprised to know that it’s actually quite common. But it makes sense—after all, according to this article, “Cellular telephone use has increased exponentially, with 3.3 billion service contracts active worldwide—or about one for every two people on the planet.” With this many cell phone users worldwide, cellbow is bound to affect a few. More than a few, actually: In fact, this condition is second only to carpal tunnel on the list of the world’s most widespread upper-extremity nerve compression syndromes.
The pain and tingling sensations cellbow sufferers experience are similar to those you’d feel after hitting your funny bone. That’s because your funny bone actually isn’t a bone at all. In fact, the pain from both conditions results from irritation to the ulnar nerve. When you hold your phone to your ear, you’re stretching that nerve—which runs beneath your elbow—and constricting blood flow to the area. Pretty soon, your fingers start tingling, and if the nerve is irritated enough, you could lose some motor control and experience numbness. If you think you might have this condition, keep these tips in mind:
Check it Out
Before you start panicking about coming down with a permanent case of cellbow, you need to get a diagnosis from a real medical professional. According to this article, “The diagnosis of cubital tunnel syndrome is first and foremost a clinical one based on a thorough history, including symptoms, duration, and aggravating activities and factors.” Your healthcare provider should offer a thorough examination to determine whether you do—or don’t—have the condition.
During that visit, your provider should conduct not only a hand evaluation, but also a thorough spinal exam. That way, he or she can rule out any nerve damage from other sources. Although it’s fairly easy to detect cubital tunnel syndrome, it’s important to investigate all possible pain factors, as some may indicate potentially serious conditions.
Don’t Lean In
If you’ve been diagnosed with cubital tunnel syndrome, your cell phone might not be the only mechanism to blame. You can also develop the condition when you lean on your elbows for an extended period of time. (I’m looking at you, Sheryl Sandberg.) All jokes aside, leaning on your elbows, or holding your arm in any position where the arm is flexed tighter than 90 degrees, can cause nerve irritation. To ease—or prevent—symptoms, it’s best to stretch your arms often as well as avoid sitting with your arms bent tight or leaning on your elbows for extended periods of time.
Drop it Like it’s Hot
If you’re experiencing pain from cell phone use, it’s best to change how you hold the phone or switch to a hands-free device (e.g., Bluetooth). If you still don’t experience pain relief after you’ve changed your cell-phone holding habits, you may need physical therapy. A physical therapist (PT) can teach you specific nerve-stretching and muscle-strengthening exercises to help you improve your range of motion and function. If these treatments don’t offer relief, you may need surgery.
If your elbow is causing you grief, it might be best to give it a rest. And if that doesn’t do the trick, get it checked out by a healthcare professional, and work on strengthening and stretching the area to prevent future injuries. Do you have cellbow? Share your story in the comment section below.