If your nighttime ritual involves holding your phone to your face and scrolling through Twitter or watching a couple (dozen) YouTube videos, you may notice your arm hurts the next day.
That pain has a name: “cell phone elbow,” medically known as ulnar nerve entrapment or cubital tunnel syndrome. Simply put, keeping an arm flexed for hours while holding a phone can put some serious strain on the ulnar nerve. This stress can stretch and constrict the nerve while limiting its blood supply.
What’s happening to your arm
The ulnar nerve runs the length of the arm, from neck to little finger, and it’s the largest nerve in the human body not protected by muscle or bone. It gives sensation to your pinky and ring fingers and the portion of your palm beneath those digits. The most common place for this nerve to bind up is in that little groove on the outside of your elbow—the area you may know as your “funny bone.”
This can happen whenever your body remains in a flexed, static position for too long. “Motion is life,” says chiropractor Rudy Gehrman, noting that our relatively immobile lives make us susceptible to repetitive stress injuries like strained or pinched nerves. That stress creates microtraumas as muscles, ligaments, and tendons all start to stretch or compress in ways they are not supposed to, he explains.
In the case of cell phone elbow, continually flexing your arm stretches the ulnar nerve, which can cause tingling or numbness in your outer fingers. Left untreated, it can lead to permanent nerve damage and muscle degradation.
How to prevent cell phone elbow
As with any sort of physical health issue, prevention is key, says Gehrman, who is also CEO of Physio Logic, a New York City-based physical wellness center. “You’ve got to be really careful because it’s not easy to get a nerve to heal,” he warns.
Be mindful of all situations where your elbow is hyperflexed, or resting in one position for a long time. One obvious situation is when you’re on the phone or at your computer. Gehrman suggests exploring hands-free technology options, like headsets, for calls.
You can also hurt your ulnar nerve by sleeping with your arms bent all night. If you’re having trouble breaking that habit, Gehrman suggests trying something like an elbow brace.
If you must be at your desk or otherwise seated for long stretches of time, be sure to inject periodic movement or quick exercises into your day, especially if you don’t work out. A few overhead presses or arm curls can help keep things limber. Motion is key, but it’s also important to pay attention to your body so you can recognize the signs of cell phone elbow early on and act fast.
How to treat cell phone elbow
If your elbow hurts and your arm feels weak, you should seek professional help. But if you just have some mild soreness or numbness, you can treat the problem at home.
First, assess the situation, Gehrman says. Starting from your pinky finger, use your other hand to feel where any pain or stiffness might be coming from, and continue all the way up to your shoulder. Pay attention to your outer forearm, especially below the elbow, which is often one of the first places you’ll notice the muscular effects of cell phone elbow. Gently massage any areas that seem stiff or sensitive. If your elbow is sore, you can massage the tissue around the nerve, but be careful not to massage the nerve itself—that can cause more damage, he cautions.
Beyond that, keeping your blood flowing and exercising your limbs’ full range of motion can unstick any tissues in your arm that are over-compressed. Keep those habits up even after you’re feeling good so you these lessons don’t go to waste—the more you move, the less you’ll regret scrolling TikTok until you pass out.