James Hofheins loves his job as a social media representative for a Utah retailer. All workday long, the veteran customer service representative monitors Facebook and Twitter for people talking about his company. If there’s a problem, he follows up to make sure things get taken care of.

Hofheins is so enamored with social media he stays on Twitter long after the work day ends to keep tabs on world news, tweet friends and retweet interesting tidbits that float across his Twitter stream. Away from his desk, a Palm Treo is his keyboard of choice for tuning into Twitter, sending email and texting.

But all that connectivity is taking a toll on Hofhein’s thumb, his right one to be exact. The 45-year-old uses it exclusively to type and text and lately he’s been on Twitter so much it hurts. “It throbs from the tip to the bottom joint where it connects to the hand,” he says. “It’s stiff, it’s hard to extend and sometimes the tip is numb,” he says.

Ouch. As more people use an iPhone, Palm Treo and other smartphone and PDAs for social networking, e-mailing and texting, they’re developing aches and pains, including a few ergonomics experts haven’t seen before.

‘iPod finger’ and other aches and pains

In addition to sore thumbs, Tamara James, ergonomics director at Duke University and Health System in Durham, N.C., has heard people complain of “iPod finger,” overusing their index finger to spin the selector wheel of an iPod player. iPhone users have come to doctors complaining of tennis elbow-like symptoms, what one woman with the problem calls her “iPhone elbow.” The American Physical Therapists Association has discussed how typing on itty-bitty keyboards leads to “BlackBerry thumb” since 2006.

While some early research has shown younger people could possibly develop stronger thumb muscles from all the emailing and texting they do, it’s way too soon to tell. “They could be protecting themselves for the future or setting themselves up for problems later on. We don’t know,” James says.

James is taking precautions just case. As one of her duties, James manages a group that collects data on Duke employees' work environments. When a group member complained of hand cramps from using the skinny stylus that came with the PDAs they use in the field, James found a fatter model with a more comfortable rubber grip. “We have to practice what we preach,” she says.

For small business owners, it could pay to be diligent. In the 1980s and 1990s, the appearance of office PCs led to a wave of carpal tunnel, RSI, and other musculoskeletal injuries that tapered off once workers, HR and tech support teams figured out the importance of proper wrist support, seating and posture, and federal and state worker safety agencies passed ergonomics guidelines.

Remedies for an aching thumb

If your thumbs or hands hurt from too much emailing or texting, the first thing t o do is stop. “That’s the most important thing,” James says. “If it hurts, don’t do it.”

Other remedies:

  • Maintain a neutral posture. Some thumb and elbow pain is caused by holding the joint in a fixed or awkward position for a long time. “If you’re getting numb, compression of the nerve between the hand and the phone causing it,” James says. Alleviate it by using sitting or standing correctly as you type, she says.
  • Support your arms. If you’re sitting to type emails or text for an extended time, use a pillow or other prop to support your arms and hands while you work.
  • Take frequent breaks. When desktop PCs became ubiquitous,  people had to be taught to take breaks to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and related maladies. The same holds true for iPhones and PDAs -- taking breaks often to give your hands a rest, James says.
  • Switch things up. If you normally use one hand to type or text, give it a break and type with the other one.
  • Do stretching exercises. The American Society of Hand Therapists recommends a variety of stretching exercises in a consumer education bulletin on hand-held electronics and video game injury prevention tips. They include:
  1. Opening your hands and spreading your fingers are far as possible, then holding for 10 seconds. Repeat several times.
  2. With hands laced together, turn your palms away from your body and extend your arms overhead. Stretch your upper torso through your shoulders to your hands. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat several times.

When the computer mouse came along, work that people did with two hands became concentrated into a few fingers moving the input device around. With the advent of smartphone keypads, that effort is now being directed into one lone digit not designed to do such work. “The thumb is the least dexterous part of the hand. It doesn’t move as well or do as much as other digits,” James says. “So to make it do what an index finger can do, you have to make it work harder.”

Hofheins, the Utah social media rep, is coming to terms with his late-night Treo habit – and his sore thumb. He’s started taking ibuprofen, but has yet to a doctor, saying: “I’m afraid they’ll tell me to stop.”