Thumbs and technology

A dozen years ago I had a bout of stenosing tenosynovitis in the thumb of my right hand. I did not have De Quervain’s Tendinosis. The distinction is important. At least to me.

OK, I’m messing with you just a little bit. I really am not that good with medical terminology. I had to look up the names of the medical conditions just to write the first two sentences of my journal for today. Here’s the real story. I developed a trigger thumb. I’ve actually experienced it in both hands, though so far the treatment has been a bit different. The condition causes a finger to get stuck in a bent position. When it bends or when it straightens, it does so with a nap. The condition is caused by inflammation in the sheath that surrounds the tendon in the affected finger. It is thought that the condition is related to repeated gripping actions.

The other condition, Tendinosis, is a repetitive motion inflammation caused by using a particular digit more than the others. Whereas the condition I suffered is more common in older adults, this condition is most common in late teens and those in their twenties. It is caused by the repetitive motion of using the thumbs to type on smartphones.

To be clear, I’ve never learned to type on my phone with my thumbs. I use my forefinger. I’m way slower than those who type with their thumbs. When I want to type, I prefer a keyboard. In fact, I developed my trigger thumb before I owned a smart phone.

The treatment was relatively straightforward. I received a steroid injection in my thumb. That provided relief for several months. The second injection provided relief for several weeks. When I went back for the third injection, I was referred to a surgeon. It was a rather simple procedure. It took less than 10 minutes. A small incision was made at the base of my thumb and the sheath was opened up. After I healed up from the surgery, I was good as new. The condition has never returned to that thumb and I have had no further symptoms. My strength and grip in that hand are good. Later I developed a similar condition in my left thumb, but the first injection has so far given me complete relief for nearly a year.

The kind of tendinosis that is caused by chronic overuse has reached crisis proportions in many areas. It is normal for there to be a bit of stiffening of joints as we age. Our tendons aren’t quite as pliable as they once were. Orthopedic surgeons, however, are concerned at the rate that the condition is becoming common among teens and young adults. The use of hand-held devices is making the condition appear to be the result of addiction to the devices. People can’t stop using their devices even when their fingers become numb or sore. The condition would probably clear up on its own if the repetitive motion were ceased. However, they are unable to stop using the devices.

The issue of tendon disorders came up recently in a conversation with some other ministers about what we consider to be essential tools of our profession. I was reporting how important it was for me, at the beginning of my career, to own a complete set of the Interpreter’s Bible. The 12-volume set plus the four volumes Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible and an additional supplement to the dictionary contain thousands upon thousands articles by thousands of scholars. It was, at the time, considered to be the most complete reference for biblical scholars. These days I don’t use those books at all. I have, on my computer, access to those articles plus thousands more. I can check cross references between multiple commentaries without pulling a single volume off of my shelf.

I was wondering how much the strain of years of pulling heavy books off of the shelf with one hand (in my case the right hand) contributed to my trigger thumb. Will the next generation of ministers, who do not need physical books to do their work, be prone to different ailments than I?

When I began as a minister, I used a manual typewriter to write out my sermons, which I then read to the congregation. I would enter the pulpit with a bible, a hymnal, and a small folder of papers each week. At some point I switched to an electric typewriter and from that to a computer. These days I don’t print out my worship notes on paper. I have all that I need on a tablet computer. I have the hymns, bible verses, prayers, worship notes - everything I need - all on the computer. It is light weight and portable. We even have a bluetooth connection to the church’s sound system so I can play music or audio clips directly from the device.

I’ve wondered if the ability to cut and paste combined with the availability of having multiple Bible translations on the computer results in ministers who know the bible less well than was the case int he past. I’ve typed paragraphs from the bible over and over again in preparation for worship. I don’t do that any more. I just select the verses I need and import them into my document. I can do it without even carefully reading what I’m copying.

Who knows if it is better or worse? It is different. And I don’t expect things to ever go back to the way they were. I also am aware that there are skills possessed by younger pastors that I don’t have. They are more adept at the use of social media than I. I’ll probably never grow comfortable with FaceBook and Twitter and Instagram. I use them, but rather awkwardly..

We each belong to a particular range of time. I am who I am in part of because of where I have been and what I have experienced. At least it seems unlikely, giving how things have been going, that I will suffer from the over use of my thumbs by typing on my phone.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!