Cell Phone Elbow is No Laughing Matter

Photo by Neustock Images/iStock.

I remember when I used to think, Why would I ever need to carry around a phone with me? Now, like many others, I feel I cannot leave home without it. Cellular phone usage has increased exponentially over the last decade. According to wireless industry association CITA, by the end of 2008, about 87 percent of Americans owned a cell phone, with a total of 270.3 million subscribers. So it should come as no surprise that cases of cubital tunnel syndrome (also called cell phone elbow) are steadily rising.


Like its well-known cousin, carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome is an injury caused by overuse due to prolonged or recurring movements. Instead of an injury to the wrist area, however, cubital tunnel syndrome causes pain in the elbow when the ulnar nerve is pinched. That's the same nerve that rings loudly with pain when you hit your "funny bone."

Cubital tunnel syndrome symptoms can vary, but common early indications are numbness or tingling in the ring and little fingers and/or elbow pain.

This injury can be caused by anything that hits or compresses the ulnar nerve, or from having the elbow bent for long periods of time causing the nerve to press against bone. Some common examples of actions that can lead to cubital tunnel syndrome include:

  • Keeping the elbow bent at night when sleeping

  • Typing for hours with the arms bent at 90-degree angles

  • Resting an elbow for long hours on a window frame when driving

  • Leaning on the elbow for extended periods

  • Keeping the elbow bent for long stretches of time when talking on the phone

If untreated, symptoms can worsen, causing pain, swelling, weakness or clumsiness of the hand. This can make it even harder to open up a pickle jar or twist off a bottle cap. In severe cases the ring and pinkie fingers can curl up.


But don't despair—there are solutions.


Start off by avoiding doing things that irritate the nerve. If your pain is caused by prolonged bending of your elbow, such as from talking on the phone too often and for too long, then swap the phone back and forth between your hands, or use a hands-free headset or Bluetooth earpiece.

Other options for treatment include wearing an elbow pad to protect against hard surfaces during the day and a splint while sleeping to reduce irritation. Your doctor may also suggest anti-inflammatory medications, and in severe cases, surgery may be the best option. But talk to your doctor about alternatives first.

Acupuncture is a great source of help. Not only can it treat the pain, it can also relieve the cause of the pain. Acupuncturists may insert very thin sterile needles at or around your elbow to relieve pain. They may also insert the needles at distal points-such as on your legs-which will release endorphins and morphines (feel-good hormones and naturally occurring painkillers), while also stimulating pain-addled nerves and altering your brain's signals for pain. Acupuncture can also relieve inflammation, increase local circulation to speed recovery and help you to relax so that your body is in an optimal state for healing.

If you are experiencing nerve pain, consult your doctor. Trained professionals can offer the best advice for your lifestyle. But remember: Medical treatmentwhether it's conventional, Eastern or holisticis not a get out of jail free card. If you're suffering from cubital tunnel syndrome, avoid the action that is the cause of the problem to reduce pain and minimize future nerve damage.

By Dr. Melissa Carr| June 08, 2009
Categories:  Care

About the Author

Dr. Melissa Carr

Dr. Melissa Carr

Dr. Carr is a registered Doctor of TCM and began her career in health with a Bachelors degree in Human Kinetics. After spending two years in Japan, one of which was spent doing research at Ehime Medical University, she completed a 4-year training for Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine at the International College of TCM. As part of the program, she interned at two hospitals in China: Acupuncture Hospital in Hefei, Anhui province and Jiang Yin TCM Hospital in Jiangyin, Jiangsu province. During her schooling, she worked as a nutritional consultant where she advised people on the use of western herbs and supplements. She also taught nutrition at the West Coast College of Massage Therapy.

In addition to running her clinic, Dr. Carr also acts as a natural health and nutrition consultant for several magazines and clinics. For more information about Dr. Carr visit: activetcm.com

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