Get Tips and Exercises from Physical Therapists to Relieve Texting Thumb Pain

Learn how to alleviate texting thumb pain and get expert tips and exercises from physical therapists for relief and recovery.

Published Date: Jul 3, 2024
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You probably don’t think a lot about your thumbs, but you use them almost constantly when you’re on your phone or tablet. Think about it: You send off texts or emails or pinch your fingers together to zoom in on a photo. Your thumbs do a lot for you. 

“Our thumbs weren’t designed for these small, repetitive movements,” explains Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. So although your thumbs are able to do everything you need, certain repetitive motions can make it more likely that you’ll develop thumb pain. There’s even a name for it now: texting thumb.

The good news? There’s a lot you can do to treat your texting thumb and prevent it from recurring. Here’s a closer look at what texting thumb is, what it feels like, and tips from Hinge Health physical therapists on how to get relief from texting thumb pain.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kellen is a Hinge Health Physical Therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. She has a special interest in pregnancy and postpartum care.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

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What Is Texting Thumb?

Texting thumb may not be in any medical textbooks, but De Quervain's tenosynovitis certainly is. And they’re basically the same thing. “Texting thumb is a general term for thumb irritation related to spending time on a smartphone,” says Dr. Kellen. About 20% of people who frequently text on their phone report thumb pain, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Medicine. “We see it all the time in physical therapy,” adds Dr. Kellen. “Often, it’s something patients bring up while we’re working on something else. They’ll make an offhand mention that their thumb hurts when they’re on their phone and ask if there are exercises we can give them for that.”

Texting thumb also tends to be associated with smaller phones, notes Dr. Kellen. “Larger phones and tablets tend to cause more pain in the wrists,” she points out.

Symptoms of Texting Thumb 

The symptoms of texting thumb include:

  • Pain or achiness at the base of your thumb

  • Stiffness at the base of your thumb

  • A popping or clicking sensation when you move your thumb

  • A bump or tenderness at the base of your thumb

  • Thumb discomfort that extends from the base of your thumb up into your wrist

All these symptoms can make it harder for you to do daily activities that go beyond simply texting. However, targeted movements can help relieve symptoms and get you back to using your thumbs, free of pain.

What Causes Texting Thumb?

The answer to this is easy: texting. This also includes typing emails, swiping on your phone, or doing anything that involves thumb motion on a handheld device. The more you do, the more likely you are to develop it. One study examined the hand tendons of texters and found that the more they texted, the thicker their tendons that help flex the thumb were. This is often a normal adaptation to increased demand on the muscles and tendons.

In addition to phone usage, there may be a few other factors that make you more susceptible to developing texting thumb. They include:

  • Other repetitive activities that use your thumb, like wringing out clothes, hammering, skiing, or knitting.

  • Lifting heavy objects.

  • Caring for an infant. Repeatedly lifting and holding a baby for long periods of time can contribute to pain and inflammation in the tendons of your hand, including your thumb. This may make you more likely to develop texting thumb.

Texting Thumb: A Hinge Health Perspective

You may panic if you develop texting thumb. But you don’t need to stop using your smartphone altogether. You can still text; you may just want to modify how you do it for a bit. The other thing that’s very important, stresses Dr. Kellen, is to strengthen and stretch your thumbs. You may not be able to control the fact that you developed texting thumb, but with exercises — such as those recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists below — you’ll be able to manage your symptoms and get back to doing your daily activities with less pain. 

Texting Thumb Treatment 

“Smartphones weren’t designed with your thumbs in mind,” notes Dr. Kellen. But there are plenty of ways you can treat texting thumb should you develop it. 

  • Strengthening and stretching exercises. Targeted exercises help keep thumb muscles strong and improve range of motion. This helps reduce tension and makes your thumbs more resilient to repetitive movements. See the texting thumb exercises below for some options.

  • Texting habit modification. You don’t need to stop using your phone, and you don’t want to completely rest your thumbs either, says Dr. Kellen. But scaling back on some texting and phone usage can give your tendons a break while your pain settles down. Try using the talk to text function on your phone or make phone calls instead of texting when possible. Small changes can make a big difference in a matter of days. 

  • Topical anti-inflammatories. Over-the-counter ointments like diclofenac gel can help to relieve pain and inflammation without the side effects of oral medicines.

  • Thumb splint. You can use one for a few days to provide extra support, says Dr. Kellen. A splint reduces motion at the thumb and wrist to reduce strain on your tendons. This shouldn’t be a long-term treatment, though, since prolonged immobilization can contribute to muscle weakness and joint stiffness, ultimately delaying healing. A physical therapist can help you determine whether a thumb splint would help you and how long you should use one. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

  • Apply ice. Cold therapy can help relieve pain and inflammation. Dr. Kellen recommends applying ice to your sore thumb for about 10 to 15 minutes every four to six hours.

Exercises for Texting Thumb

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  • Isometric Thumb Abduction and Adduction
  • Isometric Thumb Flexion and Extension
  • Thumb Opposition
  • Double Wrist Extensor Stretch

Above are some texting thumb exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists. These are isometric exercises, meaning they involve tightening, or contracting, your thumb muscles. “These movements help to manage and reduce pain around your thumb while still lightly activating your muscles,” Dr. Kellen explains.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

How to Prevent Texting Thumb

While you may not be able to prevent texting thumb from ever occurring, there are ways you can prevent it from flaring up in the future, including: 

  • Break up your screen time. “If you text a lot, try to organize your time into smaller chunks with breaks in between,” recommends Dr. Kellen. When you’re off the phone, stretch out your thumb with some exercises like the ones listed above.

  • Use your phone’s dictation options. Most phones have a talk to text feature. Consider using it when you’re able, suggests Dr. Kellen.

  • Be ambidextrous. Try to text with both thumbs to take pressure off one that does more work than the other. You can also use other fingers, like your index finger, to scroll and type.

  • Change your position. “If you have your smartphone too close to your body, it can put your hands and wrists in a position that places extra stress on your thumb,” says Dr. Kellen. Support your arms on something like a table or desk, and keep your phone further away from you to take pressure off.

PT Tip: Listen To Your Thumbs

You want to catch texting thumb symptoms early if you can, says Dr. Kellen. “If you start to notice that your thumb or thumbs feel achy and you use your phone a lot, start to work on behavioral changes and thumb exercises right away,” she advises. “This way, you can try to keep worsening pain at bay.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

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References 

  1. Baabdullah, A., Bokhary, D., Kabli, Y., Saggaf, O., Daiwali, M., & Hamdi, A. (2020). The association between smartphone addiction and thumb/wrist pain. Medicine, 99(10), e19124. doi:10.1097/md.0000000000019124

  2. Akkaya, N., Dogu, B., Ünlü, Z., Çarl, A. B., Akkaya, S., Tekin, L., & Özçakar, L. (2015). Ultrasonographic Evaluation of the Flexor Pollicis Longus Tendon in Frequent Mobile Phone Texters. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 94(6), 444–448. doi:10.1097/phm.0000000000000186

  3. McBain, B., Rio, E., Cook, J., Sanderson, J., & Docking, S. (2023). Isometric thumb extension exercise as part of a multimodal intervention for de Quervain’s syndrome: A randomised feasibility trial. Journal of Hand Therapy, 28(2), 72–84. doi:10.1177/17589983231158499

  4. Barber, C. (2021, November 19). Texting Thumb, Trigger Finger, Gamer’s Thumb and Other Smartphone Injuries. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/texting-thumb-trigger-finger-gamers-thumb-and-other-smartphone-injuries/