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Preventing Tech Aches: Using Smart Phones Wisely

BETHESDA, MD (Dec. 26, 2013) — If you received a new smart phone or tablet this holiday season, chances are you’ve already spent hours discovering all the things you can do with it. But you may have also discovered its downside: aches and pains.

“Repetitive movements of your shoulders, neck, elbows, and thumbs can create pain and even structural changes in your joints, muscles, tendons, and nails in addition to straining your eyes,” says Debbie Amini, EdD, OTR/L, CHT, Assistant Professor of occupational therapy at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. “Smart phone fog, cell phone elbow, and smart phone thumb are but a few of the maladies that were unheard of years ago, but that have the potential to cause us discomfort and place us in danger today.”

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) offers some advice for smart use of smart phones, tablets and other handheld technology that does not lead to pain, numbness, or even long-term nerve or tendon damage:

  1. Keep messages short. Use abbreviations and word predictions when typing on a smart phone.
  2. Take breaks. Make time to stop and rest your hands and perform gentle stretches. When on a long phone conversation, switch hands frequently.
  3. Use the device wisely. Avoid cradling the phone between your neck and shoulder. Instead, use a hands-free function like speakerphone or Bluetooth.
  4. Avoid overuse of fingers. Hold the device with one hand and type with the other to avoid strains in the wrists and thumbs.
  5. Give your eyes a break, too. Look at least 20 feet away every 20 minutes to refocus your eyes. When purchasing a smart phone or tablet, consider selecting a larger screen size which will lessen the chance for eye strain.
  6. Be safe. To avoid injury to yourself and others, do not walk or drive while using high-tech gadgets.

“Our thumbs were not created for the type of repetitive movement, static loading, and joint compression that takes place when utilizing these devices,” Amini says. “I have personally experienced pain in my thumbs following a flight where I spent over an hour scrolling and tapping to play a game on my smart phone. Limiting usage time, using alternate fingers, and taking frequent rest breaks may decrease the incidence of pain and dysfunction in the thumbs.”

Amini and other occupational therapy practitioners can provide education on the movements that cause pain and recommend ergonomic strategies and equipment to avoid injury and aid the healing process. They can also suggest other ways to use the advice to prevent future problems. More strategies, resources and tips dedicated to avoiding discomfort while using smart phones are offered through AOTA’s Web site, www.aota.org.

Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 140,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential. For more information, go to www.aota.org.