The pain in Julie Mueller’s right hand was getting worse. She had just arrived in Ireland for a trip in 2018 when she started feeling a twinge at the base of her pinkie. It wasn’t long, she said, before that pain turned into a constant ache and began radiating through the outer edge of her hand.
“It occurred to me,” said Mueller, “that after the plane ride and many, many long bus rides, it was that constant balancing of the phone.”
For hours during the trip from her home in northern Michigan, Mueller, 48, had been using her Google Pixel smartphone — holding it as she always did: in one hand, with the bottom of the phone resting against her pinkie, leaving her thumb free to scroll.
The claw-like grip and its variations are a common sight among smartphone users. But orthopedists and occupational therapists say the one-handed hold can take a toll on the body. Dubbed “smartphone pinkie” (not a formal medical term) by some people on the internet, the issues that could result from using your smallest finger as a phone stand join a growing list of hand, wrist, elbow and neck problems that experts say is probably connected to overusing handheld technology.
“Over the last five to 10 years as phones have evolved from your standard flip phone or your Nokia block phone, which are much smaller, to these mini computers in your hands, there has been a rise in overuse injuries and nerve-related symptoms as people spend a lot more time on their smartphones,” said Duc Nguyen, an orthopedic surgeon at Johns Hopkins with expertise in hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder conditions.
So the next time you reach for your phone, here’s what Nguyen and other experts recommend you keep in mind:
— Be aware of how you’re holding and using your device.
The musculoskeletal and nerve problems linked to phone use are often the result of how much time you’re spending in “constrained positions” doing repetitive motions, said Dominic King, a sports medicine and interventional orthopedic physician at the Cleveland Clinic.
A one-handed claw grip, for instance, is “just not a natural position that we normally like to use our hands in,” Nguyen said. In this position, he said, people tend to flex their wrists at an angle, potentially straining tendons and increasing pressure on the nerves that run through the wrist. If, for example, the median nerve at the wrist is compressed, it can cause numbness or tingling in some fingers. Additionally, Nguyen said, the claw grip might exacerbate elbow conditions such as golfer’s or tennis elbow.
Using your phone with one hand can also lead to general muscle soreness and wreak havoc on your thumbs and pinkies, experts said. Stretching your thumb across a screen repeatedly can cause tendinitis, pain and possibly even trigger finger, said Eugene Tsai, director of Hand Surgery Education at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The motion may also aggravate existing arthritis at the base of the thumb.
“Our thumbs just weren’t evolved to be doing this nonstop work for long periods of time,” Tsai said.
Pinkies were similarly not designed to support weighty smartphones, experts said — despite the number of people who say they instinctively brace their phones against the smallest finger.
This may be the result of pinkies having more mobility than the other fingers, said Ann Lund, an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist with the Mayo Clinic. But, she said, the finger is smaller and won’t “tolerate the pressure and the positioning as well as a larger digit.”
Resting your phone on your pinkie can strain the ligament that connects the finger to your hand, said Michelle G. Carlson, a hand and upper extremity surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Where the pinkie contacts the phone can also become calloused and sore, she said.
Aside from hand and wrist positioning, be mindful of your elbow and neck, experts said. If you keep your elbow flexed past 90 degrees for extended amounts of time, such as when you’re holding your phone up to your ear or bringing it closer to your face, there is a “very significant increase in the amount of pressure” on the part of the ulnar nerve that travels through the cubital tunnel across the elbow, Nguyen said.
Nerves can also be compressed if you frequently contort your neck to pinch your phone between your ear and shoulder, King said. And, he said, you can experience strain and stiffness at the back of your neck from looking down at your phone screen.
It’s critical, Lund said, to pay attention symptoms that may occur when you’re on your phone.
“What your body’s telling you is that you have reached maximum capacity of performance,” she said, “and so what it’s asking for is some rest.”
— Take breaks and change positions often.
The key to preventing mild overuse problems from developing into more serious conditions is decreasing and modifying phone use, experts said.
“If you’re anticipating using your phone for several hours a day, you don’t want them to be continuous,” Nguyen said. “Take a break. Stretch out your fingers. Stretch out the wrist.”
Be aware of how much time you usually spend on your phone and establish time limits, King said. Apple and Android devices, for example, allow users to monitor their screen time and set limits for app use.
Changing positions frequently can also make “a huge difference,” Carlson said. “Even if you’re talking on the phone with your elbow bent, switch to the other side … Don’t try to power through it because that’s going to cause problems that will last way beyond your phone call.”
Consider moving or repositioning at least every 10 to 15 minutes, Nguyen and King said. Tsai recommended 5-minute intervals, noting, “Five minutes passes very quickly when you’re using your phone, but it’s actually a long time keeping your hand in one position.”
Any noticeable pain, such as soreness or aches, indicates you need a change.
— Prioritize comfort and ergonomics.
For those who aren’t able or willing to put down their phones, there are ways to use them more comfortably, experts said.
Trying holding your phone with two hands, Nguyen said, which allows the wrists to be in neutral position and lets you use both thumbs to cover more of the screen.
If you’re accustomed to using your phone with one hand, don’t rely on your pinkie as the support, King said. Instead, he and other experts suggested buying assistive accessories, such as PopSockets or attachable rings and straps, which can also come with certain phone cases.
“Personally, I can’t even use a phone without a PopSocket anymore,” Nguyen said. “Not only can you reach across much easier, it’s a more natural ergonomic position for your hand and wrist.”
These attachments can also make it easier to adjust your hand position when holding a phone and increase comfort if you’re switching to your non-dominant hand, Lund said.
Mueller, the Michigan resident, devised a more customized approach to resolving her phone-induced pain. Now, when she knows she might be on her phone for longer periods of time, she said she uses a splint her husband 3-D printed for her that keeps her ring and pinkie fingers together.
Experts also recommended more hands-free usage or taking phone size into consideration.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as trying to fit the appropriate sized phone to the appropriate sized hand,” Lund said. If you’re buying a phone, Carlson suggested making sure it feels comfortable in your hand before purchasing it.
— Know when to seek medical care.
Although experts said mild symptoms often resolve with rest and changing your phone usage, they emphasized that it’s important not to dismiss worsening or lingering issues.
If the numbness and tingling in your hand and fingers persists even long after you’ve stopped using your phone or changed positions, that may be a “sign of very severe nerve compression,” Tsai said. Muscle atrophy could also indicate a more serious nerve problem, he said.
Any pain that also doesn’t quickly resolve should be assessed by a health-care professional, King said. Neck pain, in particular, Lund added, “should be immediately addressed to just ensure that it’s nothing more than strain and that there’s nothing more insidious going on.”
Remember, King said, technology use is just one factor that can contribute to musculoskeletal or nerve problems. “Knowing how to reduce some of those larger injuries may start simply with just setting a time limit with your phone.”