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How smartphones and tablets are causing ‘trigger finger’

Presenting an expert's take on what causes trigger finger and tips to heal from it

Repeated or forceful thumb or finger movements can cause trigger finger
Repeated or forceful thumb or finger movements can cause trigger finger (Pexels/The Lazy Artist Gallery)

Our addiction to phones is seeing a rise in the trigger finger phenomenon. Considered to be one of the most common causes of hand pain, trigger finger is believed to have impacted about 2% of the world's general population. 

So, what is trigger finger? 
Trigger finger, medically referred to as stenosing tenosynovitis, is a condition that impacts the tendons responsible for flexing your fingers and thumb. It typically manifests as a sensation of the fingers or thumb locking or catching during bending and straightening movements. Additional symptoms may include pass finger and thumb pain along with stiffness.

What are the symptoms of trigger finger?
Symptoms of trigger finger can vary in intensity and may encompass: 

1. Finger stiffness, especially noticeable in the morning. 
2. A sensation of audible popping or clicking as the finger is moved. 
3. Tenderness or the presence of a lump in the palm near the base of the affected finger. 
4. Occasional episodes of the finger catching or locking in a bent position, followed by a sudden release. 
5. The finger remaining locked in a bent position for a period.

It's important to note that trigger finger can affect any finger, including the thumb and multiple fingers on one or both hands. Typically, these symptoms are more pronounced in the morning.

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What are the causes of trigger finger?
Repeated or forceful finger and thumb movements can result in the inflammation of a tendon (tissues that attach muscles to bones), ultimately leading to the development of trigger finger. Tendons are enveloped by a sheath, which facilitates smooth tendon movement. Occasionally, either the tendon or it’s sheath becomes inflamed and swells. Prolonged irritation of the tendon sheath can result in the formation of scar tissue and thickening, which interferes with the tendon's natural movement. In such cases, when you bend your finger or thumb, it causes the inflamed tendon to traverse a constricted sheath, leading to a snapping or popping sensation.

Though the exact causes of trigger finger remain relatively unclear, several factors can elevate your susceptibility to developing it: 

Underlying medical conditions: Trigger finger tends to be more prevalent among individuals with specific medical conditions, such as diabetes, thyroid disease, gout and rheumatoid arthritis.

Vigorous hand activities: The condition is known to manifest following the vigorous or forceful use of your fingers and thumb. This is commonly seen in farmers, industrial workers and musicians.

Age: Trigger finger is notably more common in older individuals and is a rare occurrence in children. However, it's worth noting that there exists a condition known as congenital trigger thumb, which can lead to a locked flexion of a child's thumb.

Gender: This condition is more common in women.

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How can trigger finger be treated?

Non-surgical approach
The initial treatment for trigger finger involves use of non-surgical methods including: 

1. Rest: Allowing your hand to rest and refraining from activities that exacerbate the condition can aid in its resolution. 
2. Splinting: Wearing a splint during the night to maintain the affected finger or thumb in a straight position while you sleep can be beneficial. 
3. Exercises: Engaging in gentle stretching exercises for your hands can effectively reduce stiffness and enhance the range of motion in the affected digit(s).
4. Medications: Over-the-counter drugs such as paracetamol and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may provide relief from pain and inflammation.
5. Steroid injections: Corticosteroid injections, which contain a potent anti-inflammatory agent, can be administered into the tendon sheath at the base of the affected digit.

Surgical approach
When non-surgical treatments fail to alleviate your trigger finger symptoms, your hand surgeon may advise surgery as an option to prevent permanent stiffness. The decision to undergo surgery is generally based on the degree of pain or loss of function you experience in the affected digit. The typical surgical procedure for trigger finger is referred to as “trigger finger release”.

How can one prevent getting trigger finger?
The most effective strategy for preventing trigger finger is to minimize excessive strain on your hands, fingers and thumbs. Here are a few simple tips to prevent the condition: 

Proper techniques: Acquire knowledge of the correct hand postures and techniques for sports or work-related activities to minimize the risk of developing trigger finger.

Gradual engagement: When embarking on new exercises or activities, adopt a gradual approach to minimize the risk of injury.

Scheduled breaks: If you find yourself engaged in repetitive tasks that impose substantial stress on your hands, remember to take regular breaks to reduce the strain on your hands.

Ergonomic smartphone use: Given the growing association between smartphones and trigger finger, it is advisable to embrace sound ergonomic practices. Hold your device in a manner that reduces strain on your fingers, and steer clear of extended periods of texting or typing to safeguard the health of your hands. 

Dr. Prashant Kamble is consultant, department of Orthopaedics at 
Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai. 

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