Injuries used to have a respectable story behind them -- a motorcycle accident, a sports injury, perhaps lifting something too heavy. But recently, doctors are noticing an uptick in more ignoble injuries, such as the "cell phone elbow."
Instead of the usual carpal tunnel syndrome from typing, Dr. Peter Evans of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio began to see more of his patients coming in with an unexplained stinging, burning and tingly feeling in their hands.
"I started to think to myself, 'I must see dozens of people glued with a phone to their ears.' When did we do this before? We never did this. We grew up in a house with one phone in the house," said Evans.
That image of a bended arm helped Evans pin a reason to the pain.
"When the elbow is flexed greater than 90 degrees you're now stretching the nerve around your elbow," explained Evans, who authored a "one-minute" consultation about cell phone elbow in this week's Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.
Evans said the longer the nerve is stretched, the greater the risk of cutting off blood flow to the nerve.
"I'm one of the cell phone elbow guys, personally," said Dr. Peter Evans, who is the director of the Upper Extremity Center at The Cleveland Clinic.
The cell phone elbow sufferers are not alone. In the past two years, doctors have reported an array of rashes, nerve damage, phantom pain and inconvenient injuries that all seem to stem from our sit-and-click lifestyle.
Formally called "cubital tunnel syndrome," cell phone elbow has much more in common with carpal tunnel syndrome than tennis elbow.
When a person continually stretches the nerve around the elbow, that particular nerve, the "ulnar nerve," can stop functioning properly.
"The analogy I give is putting your foot on the garden hose," said Evans. "It's the nerve when people say, 'I've hit my funny bone.'"
The ulnar nerve controls feeling from the elbow into the ring and pinky fingers. But Evans said it also controls tiny muscles in the hand that work to grip objects. That's why people with cell phone elbow can have sensory symptoms or muscle control problems.
"It's typically an irritable elbow -- the tingling and numbness in the ring and small finger and then clumsiness," he said.
No formal studies have pinned down the prevalence of cell phone elbow, according to Evans. However, anecdotally, the problem is both rare and harder to detect in early stages.
"Clinically, day in and day out, we have 30-to-one carpal tunnel to cubital tunnel ratio," he said.
Usually, Evans' patients can reverse the symptoms simply by switching hands, cutting back on cell phone use, or using a hands-free device. In more serious cases, patients can wear a brace to bed to keep their arm extended and increase the blood flow in their elbows while they sleep.
But in some cases, the damage from cell phone elbow can be permanent.
"That's if they come when there's advanced neuropathy -- where the muscles have atrophied," said Evans.
Unfortunately, Evans said people with cell phone elbow come in with greater damage than the usual carpal tunnel syndrome.
"I think it must be a little bit more insidious. That's why people, not infrequently, present later," he said.
"We can usually improve numbness and pain, but when they come late we can't get their muscle control back," he said.