Just a Phone? Top 7 Ways Gadgets Can Hurt

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.

Cell Phone Elbow

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.'"

Source Behind Cell Phone Elbow Pain

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.

Compared to other technology-induced injuries, like Xbox thumb, Evans said cell phone elbow is, by far, more prevalent.

Video Game Muscle Spasms

Although both sit in front of a screen, a video gamer's pose differs widely from a couch potato TV-watcher's body.

A gamer sits forward, tense, eyes glued to the screen -- often for hours. As many early gamers reach middle age, doctors warn the muscle tensing habit can lead to injuries.

"I guess you could put it that I play a lot," Mitchel Gianoni, 21, told ABCNews.com. Gianoni is an avid gamer from Massachusetts who logs a few hours of video game play each day and counts the "Grand Theft Auto" games as some of his favorites.

"Yeah, it hurts, if I'm sitting uncomfortably," he said.

A child or teenager might walk away from hours of game playing with nothing more than a sore neck or back. But it's likely harder for an adult to do the same.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average video game player is 35 and has been playing for 12 years. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that adults average four to five hours each day spent on the computer or in front of the television.

Muscles, held in one position for a sustained period of time, can cause painful inflammation and sore areas. Trigger points -- tiny areas where the muscle spasms -- can occur, too.

"It's the muscle's way of saying, 'Whoa, we're stressed out!'" Dr. Michael Schmitz, director of pediatric pain medicine at Arkansas Children's Hospital, told ABCNews.com. "Eventually, you can't voluntarily relax that muscle."

Cell Phone Allergy

Putting the phone down after a long conversation has always left the check a bit warm, if not sweaty. But once people began to switch to cell phones, dermatologists noticed a curious skin condition in which people appeared to be allergic to their phones, or, more specifically, the nickel in their cell phones.

"Some people are extremely nickel-sensitive," Dr. Lionel Bercovitch, a professor of dermatology at Brown Medical School, told ABCNews.com.

Nickel is used in a wide variety of products, including jewelry, belt buckles and watch bands. The metal is actually the most common cause of contact dermatitis in the developed world.

People with a nickel allergy have symptoms that can range from redness to a rash or blisters.

Bercovitch suspects some cases involving cell phones are not being reported because the symptoms are being confused with facial eczema.

"My guess is that it's probably more common than we think, but it's just not widely recognized," he said.

Luckily, not all cell phones contain nickel.

In an attempt to get an idea of how many phones might have the metal, Bercovitch tested 22 models of cell phones to see which makes are likely to contain the metal.

Roughly half -- a total of 10 devices -- tested positive for the metal, according to her 2008 findings published the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Bercovitch found nickel in menu buttons, on decorative logos, around the edge of the screen and even on the handset if the paint was chipped.

Wii Injuries

The Wii was supposed to be a breath of fitness fresh air to counter the typical inactivity of playing video games. But as inexperienced and older players started to use the Wii, some exercise troubles ensued.

In January 2009, Elise Bacolas shared her story of Wii injury with ABC News' "Good Morning America."

Bacolas told "GMA" she played the Wii boxing game nonstop for hours.

"I was playing eight games in a row, and I was punching so hard that I threw my shoulder out," she told "GMA."

For the next two weeks, she couldn't move her arm without flinching and went to an orthopedic surgeon.

"I went to Dr. Neil Roth, and he told me that I had overextended my shoulder and that I had inflammation in that area," Bacolas told "GMA." "I should stop all physical activity in the arm, at this point, and start physical therapy. ... That too is embarrassing."

Roth told "GMA" that he saw an uptick in Wii injuries shortly after the holiday season, presumably from inexperienced Wii players with new Wii gifts.

Nintendo told "Good Morning America" that it "is committed to the safety of its consumers and always includes comprehensive health and safety guidelines with its products."

Phantom Mobile Phone Vibrations

Apparently a so-called "crackberry" addiction to mobile phone and e-mail devices can cause some symptoms in the form of "phantom" vibrations.

Many people who kept their phones in their pockets or purses have reported feeling vibrations when their phones are on silent, or even when their phones are not there.

"If you use your cell phone a lot, it becomes part of you," Dr. William Barr, the chief of neuropsychology at the New York University School of Medicine, told ABCNews.com. "It's like wearing a tight sock all day. When you take it off, you still feel it there on your foot. If your cell phone is not there, you still feel like it is."

Barr said our reliance on our cell phones actually may be "training" some of us to believe it is vibrating when it is not.

Think of Pavlov's dog: Ring a bell enough times when you feed a dog and the dog will salivate at the ring of the bell whether or not there's food to smell.

"People are rewarded when they are able to detect low-amplitude vibrations, so they get better and better at responding," Jon Kaas, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, told ABCNews.com. "It is very rewarding to get the message, so people are able to train their system to detect that signal."

As people repeat this behavior over and over again, connections between nerves in their brain become stronger and new ones are formed, which helps to make the behavior automatic.

And sometimes, as is the case with vibrating cell phones, the behavior becomes too automatic.

"People have gotten so good at detecting vibrations that they start responding to false positives," Kaas said. "They think something is there when it is not."

Texting Thumb

Those people with their eyes downward, wildly tapping on their mobile devices at meetings, may be putting themselves, and their thumbs, at risk.

The sores and blisters that some experience from too much texting and typing have earned monikers such as "BlackBerry thumb."

But teens might be at risk too.

According to a 2008 Nielsen Media Research report, U.S. teens sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month, or nearly 80 a day.

"They are really repetitive stress injuries -- pain, numbness, discomfort in the base of the thumbs from overuse," Margot Miller, a physical therapist and president of the Occupational Health Section of the Orthopedic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association, told ABCNews.com.

These sorts of injuries, known as repetitive strain injuries or as repetitive motion disorders, are sometimes minor. But they can also lead to serious medical problems.

"I've seen a significant increase in the number of people with pain in their tendon regions in their thumbs and their fingers," Dr. Richard Brown, an orthopedic hand surgeon at the Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., told ABCNews.com. "I have to send them to the therapist or start them on medicine or put them in splints or, sometimes, even operate."

Guitar Hero Wrist

It didn't take long after the 2005 release of "Guitar Hero" for fans to start injuring themselves with the video game that simulates guitar playing for pop music groups.

The game has proliferated into handheld devices, mobile phones and the like, but people who play too long on the original "Guitar Hero" fake guitar might risk tendonitis of the wrist.

Anonymous Internet forum questions abound about annoying wrist pain caused by the game. But the "Guitar Hero wrist" became famous after a Detroit Free Press report that Detroit Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya suffered from the injury.

The injury couldn't have struck at a worse time -- during the American League Championship Series in October 2006.

According to the Detroit Free Press, team doctors became suspicious when Zumaya's sore wrist showed symptoms more similar to a guitar strain than a pitching injury. Upon the discovery of the pain, the team asked him to give up the game for the World Series.

ABC News' Gigi Stone, Dan Childs and Taylor Behrendt contributed to this report.