Americans text five times as much as they call, spending on average nearly 30 minutes texting each day.
That may not seem like much. But you might want to think about the lasting effects texting can have on your health — specifically the health of your hands. The repeated motions associated with holding the phone and texting add extra tension and wear on your joints, especially the thumb joints. The resulting health concern? Arthritis.
What is thumb arthritis?
Arthritis is a chronic health condition that causes pain and stiffness in and around your body joints — affecting just one joint or many. The most common symptoms are swelling, pain, stiffness and decreased range of motion. Those symptoms range in severity and may come and go.
Nearly 60 million adults currently live with some form of arthritis, making it the leading cause of disability in America. Some risk factors for arthritis cannot be changed: It’s more common among women and tends to occur with age. There’s also a genetic predisposition for arthritis. But for some people, the main driver of arthritis is wear and tear on the joints, which is a risk factor you can control.
People often experience arthritis symptoms in their hands before other signs of arthritis make an appearance elsewhere on the body. The thumb is the second-most common place to develop arthritis in the hand — most hand arthritis involves the last joint in each finger. Most cases of thumb arthritis are degenerative (they get worse over time) and stem from general stress on the joint. But overuse and injury to the thumb increases the risk.
The problem is that our thumbs play a role in about 50% of all hand functions. When arthritis sets in, the impact is noticeable. About two million Americans with arthritis say the condition limits their ability to grasp small objects. Nearly three million people report difficulty lifting or carrying anything weighing 10 pounds or more.
The role of texting in developing arthritis
The joint at the base of your thumb is called the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint. It’s the same opposable joint that allows you to perform activities like pinching, holding a pencil, sewing and texting.
That joint gets a lot of action during normal everyday activities — including the five to six hours the average American spends holding and typing on their smartphone each day. When you text, your thumbs move quickly and often. The repeated, unnatural motion can lead to tendonitis and inflammation of the thumb flexor and tendons. Overuse can cause inflammation and pain associated with arthritis.
Texting is still a relatively new activity and arthritis can take many decades to develop — so the full relationship remains to be seen. But experts are starting to see a connection between gripping your phone and texting with increased symptoms of arthritis in the thumbs.
Tips for protecting your joints and texting without pain
While there is no cure for arthritis, the good news is that giving your thumbs a break now can save you from pain later. To keep thumb arthritis at bay, consider:
Putting the phone down when you text, so you don’t need to grip it while typing or surfing the internet
Resting your thumbs and use your forefinger, a stylus or the voice-to-text feature to send messages
Stretching your hands regularly by opening and closing your fingers throughout the day
Using a removable phone grip, which attaches to the back of the phone so you can use your fingers to hold the phone instead of gripping it as you text
If you’re already experiencing arthritis, texting can take a painful toll on your already tender joints. If you can’t make a call and need to text, minimize your typing by using:
Predictive text, so you can click on the word instead of typing each letter
Swipe typing, which allows you to use a stylus or index finger to glide from one letter to the next to form words
Voice dictation, to speak your texts instead of typing them
If you are experiencing pain and stiffness in your hands or other symptoms of arthritis, reach out to your primary care physician.