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Is there such a thing as "cell phone elbow"?

Do cell phone chatterers have more to fear than bulky monthly bills? An orthopedic surgeon explains what cubital tunnel syndrome--aka "cell phone elbow"--is, and whether it's worth worrying about



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As CNN and others are reporting, an increasing number of cell phone gabbers are complaining of an ailment called "cell phone elbow." Here are the symptoms: pain or numbness in the hand—especially the pinky and ring fingers. Not to be confused with tennis or golfer's elbow (forms of tendonitis), this new diagnosis stems from the nerves that run through the elbow.

With more than four billion cell phone contracts out across the globe, according to the International Telecommunication Union's annual report, is a larger health issue on the horizon or is it just hype?

A recent report in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine notes that "the exact incidence of cell phone elbow is not known, but anecdotal reports and our own clinical experience indicates that its incidence parallels the rise in the use of cell phones and computer workstations."

So are these mobile devices literally putting people's nerves at risk? To find out, we spoke with Michael Hausman, chief of hand and elbow surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He talked to us on his cell from Turkey, where he's attending a conference.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Are you familiar with the term, "cell phone elbow"?
It's a popular moniker of cubital tunnel syndrome—neuritis, or inflammation of the ulnar nerve.

Is it related to tennis elbow?
It's completely unrelated. [Tennis elbow is tendonitis, and is caused by inflammation of the tendons.]

So, as a recognized condition, what are some of the symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome?
The symptoms are pain or numbness or tingling in the little finger and in half of the adjacent finger—the [pinky-facing] side of the ring finger. Those are the fingers that are innervated—their sensation is supplied—by the ulnar nerve. The remaining fingers are supplied by the median nerve.

How is it diagnosed?
Someone would complain of the symptoms, and there would be a sensitivity if one pressed or tapped over the ulnar nerve at the elbow.

How is it caused? Is there actually a "tunnel" in your elbow?
The ulnar nerve passes through a tunnel right at your elbow. You can feel the bump on the inside of your elbow. Right adjacent to that is called the cubital tunnel.

How is it different from carpal tunnel syndrome?
It's the same in the sense that it's pressure on the nerve. The anatomy is a little different, but the nerve is being pressed. The pain and tingling is the nerve's way of telling you it's uncomfortable.

Are cell phones to blame for cubital tunnel syndrome?
It's not actually caused by anything. There are hundreds of millions of people who talk on cell phones who are never symptomatic. Someone who gets this has a predisposition to have the problem. Some people are born with a little extra muscle that not everyone has, or they're born with a narrower cubital tunnel.

The use of the cell phone doesn't cause this problem. A person with a predisposition to this problem may become symptomatic when the elbow is flexed beyond 90 degrees. That can happen at night when we sleep or [are] performing a task like talking on the cell phone. Since we all tend to sleep in the fetal position, to say sleeping causes it, that's absurd.

How is it treated or prevented?
You could use a hands-free device or an earphone. In fact, that's the first treatment that we recommend to patients.

If the symptoms persist, despite keeping the elbow straighter—where someone is really experiencing persistent numbness or tingling—the nerve will suffer more permanent damage [if ignored]. So occasional numbness is benign, but persistent tingling and numbness will lead to more permanent changes.

If they're still symptomatic, then there is a surgical procedure to alleviate the problem: Make a slit and open the tunnel so the nerve has more breathing space.

Have you ever seen or treated patients with this syndrome?
I'm sitting here talking to you, and my little finger is numb. I have the condition. It's pretty common.

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