Addicted to your smartphone? It may lead to WhatsAppitis

Saman Haziq/Dubai
Filed on June 7, 2021 | Last updated on June 7, 2021 at 10.58 pm


It is a gradual build-up of damage to muscles, tendons and nerves from repetitive motions.

More and more people using, rather overusing, their smartphones are now facing a peculiar medical condition: WhatsAppitis.

If you have had no history of injury or trauma and experience a sudden acute wrist pain, the odds are that you are a victim of WhatsAppitis, a new disease named after the popular messaging app WhatsApp. It falls in the category of repetitive strain injury (RSI) and is a gradual build-up of damage to muscles, tendons and nerves from repetitive motions.

The condition WhatsAppitis was first described in the medical journal 'The Lancet' in 2014 and is caused by prolonged and repetitive movements that can result in tendon inflammation and injury.

“We cannot deny that smartphones are now an integral part of our life and it’s hard to think of a day without them. Your text messaging is causing you an injury without you realising it. As per the estimates, smartphone users spend about 3-4 hours every day on their devices and the pandemic-induced lockdowns have further increased the average usage. Millennials, for instance, often look at their phone screens more than 100 times a day.

“Severe pain in wrists and thumbs, which can sometimes be radiated to the forearm, can be a sign of WhatsAppitis. It’s a pretty serious injury. The pain is usually quite severe while mobility could also become an issue and may take several months to resolve. Therefore, as we always say, prevention is the best strategy,” explained Dr Sweta Prakash Adatia, specialist neurologist and medical director at RAK Hospital.

“Even though there are no official figures published so far, but what I can say about our facility is that we see at least 8-10 cases a month on an average between the orthopedic and neurology clinics. In addition to adults, many teenagers and children are also presenting the symptoms as they spend a lot of time playing video games, texting or using computers,” Dr Adatia added.

Dr Bhuvaneshwar Machani, consultant orthopedic surgeon at Burjeel Hospital for Advanced Surgery, Dubai, added that the condition WhatsAppitis in medical terms is known as De Quervain's disease, which is inflammation from the tendons of the thumb. “This condition is more common in female patients. Personally, I have seen a gradual rise of this problem in patients but at a strikingly alarming pace in the last 12 months in much younger patients including men. The common factor has been using phones and increasing screen times. Repeated use of both thumbs is causing this problem.”

Other issues overuse of phones can cause

Excessive use of smartphones and other similar gadgets, Dr Adatia said, can also increase the hazard of carpal tunnel syndrome, which is characterised by pain, tingling, burning, and numbness along the area of the thumb, index, middle and half of the ring finger. “Arthritis of the joints at the base of the thumb, tenosynovitis or ‘gamer’s thumb’, nintendinitis are some other conditions linked to the overuse of devices including smartphones, laptops or playing video games. Using an ergonomic mouse can help people who must use mouse for long periods of time.”

Talking about the preventive measures, the doctors said that the mainstay of treatment is the restriction of activities, splint, anti-inflammatory medications. If neglected, it’s likely to take months to recover, they added.

Advising on the treatment of this syndrome, Dr Adatia said rest-elevation-compression-elevation (Rece) is followed as a standard treatment protocol. “Required medications include anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants or some cartilage supplements. One can get relief from wearing a wrist brace, physiotherapy and rehabilitation too.

Suggesting preventive strategies to reduce such incidences, she said: “Keep your wrists straight while using the smartphone, balance it with both the hands. Don’t use the phone for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. Shift to WhatsApp web by downloading it on your laptop/desktop. Use the voice message function of WhatsApp more often rather than typing, to reduce the strain on the thumb. Avoid long and continuous messaging and use a lightweight mobile phone instead of heavier ones.”

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