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Mayo Clinic Researchers Declare 'Smartphone Thumb' War

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A condition that doctors used to only see in factory workers is becoming more widespread.

The repetitive movements of texting led doctors to dub it "smartphone thumb."

It's actually tendinitis, when the tendon that bends and flexes our thumb becomes inflamed.

Doctors say more and more patients complain about pain in their thumb each year.

Smartphones have become our constant companions. What we lovingly embrace as we take a walk, or even take a break by a lake.

We found Scott Seehusen sitting at a picnic table at Lake Calhoun; just him and his smartphone.

"My phone is a huge part of my life," Seehusen said. "I do everything from texting to emails, social media. Everything."

Texting has become an all-day, all-night activity for many of us -- giving our thumbs quite a workout.

Smartphone Thumb
(credit: CBS)

The repetitive motion appears to be leading to cases of tendonitis as people use their thumbs to tap out their thoughts on their smartphones.

"One of the hypotheses is that, you know, the joints get loose and lax, and because of that the bones kind of move differently than they would in a normal situation," said Dr. Kristin Zhao, a biomedical engineer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Dr. Zhao and a team of doctors have been looking into what's called "smartphone thumb" for the last seven years. She says the movements we require our thumbs to make as we hold our phones are awkward.

"It's also a movement that requires some force through the thumbs. So when you press on your phone, you know, you're interacting with your phone. It's not just free movement in space," she said.

Mayo Clinic researchers began using a dynamic imaging technique in 2010 to watch the bones of a healthy patient move so they could document what's normal and compare it with what's not.

"Our hypothesis is that abnormal motion of bones in the thumb could be causing pain onset and eventual osteoarthritis," Zhao said.

Could too much texting lead to more cases of arthritis in the thumb? Zhao says maybe.

"There is a high incidence of osteoarthritis in the thumb, and we just want to make sure we aren't encouraging that onset by our daily activities," she said.

Smartphone Thumb
(credit: CBS)

Another concern they want to address is the impact of all this thumb movement on children. What it will mean for them later in life is unknown.

"We really don't understand why adults get pain. And so children, you know, if you start earlier, you may get pain younger," she said.

To prevent problems, doctors say you can start by giving your thumbs a break. Mix up your method by using your forefinger to peck the screen or use your voice to dictate your message.

You can also perform daily stretching exercises with your wrists and fingers to keep your tendons limber.

"How often are we using joints, and how often are we resting them? Zhao said. "Are we taking periodic rests, or are we just exposing continually over the course of the day?"

It all makes sense, but still, this could be a tough habit to break.

We saw frequent texter Samantha Alsadi walking her dog around Lake Calhoun while using her phone.

"I don't know if it will change people's, like, habits or addiction to their phone, but it's nice to know that we're already thinking ahead about that," Alsadi said.

The Mayo Clinic study is ongoing, and researchers have not yet reached any conclusions.

But what doctors do already know about osteoarthritis in the thumb is that it occurs more in women than men.

Click here to learn more about the Mayo Clinic study and get advice on how to prevent smartphone thumb.

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