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More talking, more problems: 'Cell phone elbow' damages nerves

  • Story Highlights
  • "Cell phone elbow" caused by a nerve damage from keeping elbow bent
  • Holding phone to ear for long time can choke blood supply to nerves
  • If fingers feel numb while on phone, change hands, get a headset or hang up
By Madison Park
CNN
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(CNN) -- If your pinkie and ring fingers tingle or feel numb, you might not want to pick up that cell phone to call the doctor.

Too much cell phone use can lead to overextending nerves, causing what doctors call "cell phone elbow."

Too much cell phone use can lead to overextending nerves, causing what doctors call "cell phone elbow."

Orthopedic specialists are reporting cases of "cell phone elbow," in which patients damage an essential nerve in their arm by bending their elbows too tightly for too long.

When cell phone users hold the phone to their ears, they stretch a nerve that extends underneath the funny bone and controls the smallest fingers. When talkers chat for a long time in that position, it "chokes the blood supply to the nerves. It makes the nerves short-circuit. The next thing you know, there's tingling in the ring and small finger," said Dr. Peter J. Evans, the director of the Hand and Upper Extremity Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.

When that happens, the advice is simple: Switch hands -- before it gets worse.

People who have this condition, called cubital tunnel syndrome, can feel weakness in their hands and have difficulty opening jars or playing musical instruments.

"It could impede your typing ability, your writing ability," Evans said. "People get very unintelligible writing if it gets severe."

Donna Malloy, 66, noticed the numbness in her hands when she spoke on her cell phone for hours.

"Mainly when I was holding something, I noticed, 'Geez, they're tingling,' " Malloy said about her ring and pinkie fingers. "It got progressively worse. If you walk around holding the cell phone, after a while you're not sure you have it in the hand anymore."

She started dropping things in her left hand, and needlework became too difficult.

"I thought: 'I'm turning old and falling apart,' " Malloy said.

Constant cell phone use could "stress out the ulnar nerves," said Dr. Leon Benson, an orthopedic surgeon and spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The ulnar nerve, which travels through the forearm and branches into the hand, can become weakened and scarred after being stretched repeatedly. Video Watch the Health Minute about cell phone elbow »

"The more you bend it, the more it stretches," Evans said. "It diminishes the blood supply, and the blood is not flowing through the nerves."

While the nerves are designed for stretching, "it's not normal to be in a position to be stretched for an hour," Benson said.

People with severe cases of cubital tunnel syndrome, like Malloy, require surgery. But most cases require simple behavioral changes. The condition is not as common as carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects nerves in the wrist.

This doesn't mean that cell phone use is dangerous, doctors said.

"It's like anything else, any sporting activity," Benson said. "You can hit balls at the driving range -- just don't hit 300 of them, because you'll be sore. So common sense would dictate not to talk on the phone for hours if your small and ring fingers go numb."

After surgery, Malloy said her hands are "fine now. It doesn't bother me." She still talks on her cell phone, but she uses a Bluetooth headset.

Cubital tunnel syndrome doesn't affect only cell phone addicts.

Elderly people who rest their elbows on the arm of a chair can develop the syndrome, as can truckers and people who use wheelchairs who lean on their elbow, Evans said. Some people who sleep curled in a fetal position with their elbows overly bent can develop the syndrome. Another factor could be occupational. People who type in front of a computer, with their elbows bent tighter than 90 degrees, could damage their nerves.

Bending the elbow tighter than 90 degrees for an extended period of time will stretch the ulnar nerve by 8 to 15 percent, Evans said. The remedies are simple.

  • Avoid activities that require the elbow to be bent tighter than 90 degrees.
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  • Fix workstations so the elbows aren't overly flexed.
  • Don't lean on your elbows for an extended period of time.
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