It sounds ridiculous, sure, but these types of injuries are hardly new, said Mary Ann Wilmarth, a doctor of physical therapy and spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association. These conditions could be seen as variations on good old-fashioned repetitive strain injuries. Think of those carpal tunnel braces that your Aunt Linda had to wear.
Selfie elbow, she said, is similar to "tennis elbow" or "golfer's elbow," which are names for conditions in which you experience inflammation in the tendons that run along your arm from your hand to your elbow. Inflammation from taking selfies, Wilmarth said, happens because you're extending your arm but also trying to keep a firm grip on your phone as you do — something that the body just isn't designed to do often.
The problem with a lot of technology injuries, Wilmarth said, is overuse. "We saw this with the BlackBerries, when they came in — we had problems with BlackBerry thumb and everyone was having issues with that," she said.
Medical professionals have warned us for years about how using tech badly can hurt our bodies — and have been raising some alarm about how young some of the people reporting tech-related conditions have been, as we use tech more and more and from an earlier age. Simply put, computers and smartphones can put us in unnatural positions and for long periods of time. That can lead to serious problems — particularly if those hunched over screens and keyboards don’t exercise or stretch their bodies to counteract those effects. (I speak from experience rather than judgement: I had to visit a physical therapist a few years ago when my hand started going numb at the ripe old age of 29 because of the way I sat while typing.) And it's not just your selfie-taking hand — many hand and arm problems, Wilmarth said, can originate from tightness in the neck and shoulders as well.
Tightness in the arms can also be exacerbated by the fact that our arms rarely get much rest, as we're often constantly holding our phones. Not to mention, people tend not to think about things like holding their phones or taking selfies to be any strain at all, and so they don't work to stretch or strengthen their arm and shoulder muscles. It's also pretty easy to ignore those little twinges, or to think of all those little movements as being harmless.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to treat these sort of injuries with rest, ice, changing habits, regular shoulder and wrist rolls. In fact, there are a number of stretches and exercises you can do to prevent your muscles from tiring due to typing and other tech activities. Wilmarth suggested that something as simple as extending your arm in front of you and bending your wrist gently and slowly up and down — with an extended palm and with a loose fist — could stretch the muscles that need attention.
But a selfie stick might not help your selfie elbow condition if you're still extending your arm out to use the stick, Wilmarth said. Holding it with both hands, she said, might help matters, but it's really best to just lay off taking quite so many selfies in the first place.
The crux of this, really, is to recognize that when a part of your body hurts, you should stop doing whatever it is that’s making it hurt. If your thumb starts shaking or hurting when you put it in a certain position, give it a rest from that position for a while. If your elbow hurts when you’re taking a selfie, switch arms, adjust your position or maybe just let that selfie slide.
Remember: You really don’t have to play through the pain when the pain is caused by texting or selfies — that is why we have voice dictation and selfie sticks, appropriately used.