First came Nintendo thumb. Then, Guitar Hero wrist. Now, for the latest affliction of the wired age, it’s cell phone elbow.
Medically known as cubital tunnel syndrome, cell phone elbow is numbness, tingling and pain in the forearm and hand caused by compression of the ulnar nerve, which passes along the bony bump on the inside of the elbow.
One of the causes of pressure on the ulnar nerve? Too much gabbing, often brought on by those cell phone plans with unlimited minutes, experts say.
Prolonged flexing of the elbow, such as when you hold a cell phone to your ear while closing sales, talking to your mother or keeping tabs on your teens while you’re at work, puts tension on the ulnar nerve. In susceptible people, holding the bent-elbow position for extended periods can lead to decreased blood flow, inflammation and compression of the nerve.
“Repetitive, sustained stretching of the nerve is like stepping on a garden hose,” said Dr. Peter J. Evans, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Hand and Upper Extremity Center. “With the hose, you’re blocking the flow of water. With the elbow, you’re blocking the blood flow to the nerve, which causes it to misfire and short circuit.”
The first symptoms patients often notice include numbness, tingling or aching in the forearm and hand, a pain similar to hitting your “funny bone.” (The unpleasant sensation of hitting your “funny bone” is actually your ulnar nerve.)
Though there are no solid figures on how many people have cell phone elbow, hand specialists say the incidence is increasing along with the 3.3 billion cell phone service contracts active worldwide, Evans said.
Still, the disorder is less common than carpal tunnel syndrome, a related condition that causes pain in the hand and wrist. Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve that runs from the forearm into the hand.
“Cubital tunnel is the second most common compression syndrome we see,” said Heather Turkopp, an occupational therapist and certified hand specialist at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
Most people who get cubital tunnel syndrome are middle-aged or older. Women get cubital tunnel syndrome more often than men — and it’s probably not because they talk more.
Although the precise reasons are unknown, women may be more susceptible due to hormonal fluctuations or their anatomy, Evans said.
And too much yakking isn’t the only cause of cubital tunnel syndrome. Other causes may include sleeping with the elbows bent and tucked up into the chest, sitting at a desk with the elbows flexed at an angle greater than 90 degrees and driving with your elbow propped on the window for extended periods, he said.
In most cases, minor lifestyle changes can help alleviate symptoms, including using a hands-free headset for your cell phone. If sleep position is the problem, an elbow pad to keep the arm straighter at night can help.
More serious cases are referred to an occupational therapist, who may use ultrasound to loosen scar tissue that can form around the nerve as a result of the inflammation, as well as stretching, deep massage and “nerve-gliding” exercises to reduce pressure on the nerve, Turkopp said.
Doctors may also use anti-inflammatory injections or surgery.
Seeing your doctor soon if you’re experiencing any numbness or tingling in your hand or forearm can prevent the problem from progressing to that point, Evans said.