We've Been Holding Our Phones The Wrong Way All This Time

Here's how our phones are damaging our hands and wrists, according to experts.
Delmaine Donson via Getty Images

Do you spend countless hours scrolling on your phone? We’re probably all aware by now of the potential impact on our mental health and wellbeing. But how you use your smartphone has implications for your physical health, too.

Is your phone in your hand right now? Ask yourself: how are you holding it? Is the bottom edge resting on your little finger, the back on your index and maybe your third and fourth fingers – while your thumb does all the scrolling?

Yep, us too. But it’s not good for us. Your pinkie and thumb are the fingers that are most impacted when holding a smartphone or tablet. If you grip or clutch your phone a lot, this can also cause your thumb and fingers to cramp or become inflamed, a condition known informally as “smartphone finger.”

But your wrists and arms can also be affected by the way you use it.

This tweet went viral this week, forcing many of us to reconsider how we’re using our smartphones. How valid is its claim?

Sorry to have to break it to you, but Ben Lombard, a member of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, confirms to HuffPost UK that it’s all true.

“We tend to hold our phones with the little finger underneath supporting the weight of the phone and our wrist turning inward to told the screen to our faces,” says Lombard. “This can cause ulnar nerve compression if sustained for long periods of time.”

The ulnar nerve is one of three main nerves in your arm – it runs from inside the elbow and along your inner forearm into your palm, pinkie side, and transmits electrical signals to muscles in both the forearm and hand.

The nerve can get trapped either by prolonged stretching – when your elbow is bent – or prolonged pressure, from leaning on the handlebars of a bike, say, or using hand tools, according to John Hopkins Medicine. Or your beloved phone.

A 2017 study found a link between the extended use of smartphones and a greater likelihood of experiencing another painful wrist and hand disorder.

According to lead author Peter White, assistant professor in the department of health technology and informatics at Hong Kong Polytechnic University: “Caution may be warranted when using hand-held electronic devices in order to minimise the chance of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.”

Carpal tunnel syndrome can develop following repeated pressure to the point where the median nerve passes into the hand and meets the wrist – the carpal tunnel – which is surrounded by bones and ligaments, palm side of your hand.

Work conditions that call for “repetitive, forceful, or awkward hand movements, for example, when typing” are a common cause for carpal tunnel syndrome, which can result in pain, numbness, finger tingling, and weakened grip strength.

To find out if smartphone usage increased people’s chances of getting it, White and his colleagues followed up on a prior survey of 500 University of Hong Kong students, that split students into two groups: those who used portable devices for more than five hours a day and non-intensive users (who used them less than five hours a day). More than half (54%) of the intensive group reported musculoskeletal pain and/or discomfort, compared to 12% of the other group.

The new study targeted 48 students from the earlier study. Half were intensive users who spent more than nine hours a day (on average) using their device. Other students spent less than three hours a day on their devices.

Researchers found those who were part of the intensive group had significantly more and increased discomfort in their wrists and hands. The longer time a person spent using a handheld electronic device, the harder and longer their pain was.

And that’s not all. There’s also the potential for painful neck-ache. As physio Ben Lombard warns: “The position of the neck is also heavily invoked, as we tend to be stuck looking down if standing up. Or, even worse, if we are lying down using our phones, we will often be holding our neck in an extended position which can compress the nerves.”

So, other than avoiding the “pinkie anchor”, can we change the way we hold our phones to lessen any collateral damage. Not really, says Lombard, who instead recommends more mindful use of your electronics – could you be reading or watching content on a larger computer or TV screen, for instance, rather than a hand-held device?

“Ultimately, there is no ‘optimal’ way to hold your phone,” he says. “Just consider the amount of time you use it and how you use it.”