By: Rachel Ryan
Originally Posted at VirtuaWoman.org
You may have scanned the title of this article and thought to yourself: “Texting thumbs? Is that really a medical condition?” Well, in a manner of speaking – yes, yes it is. According to Virtua orthopedic surgeon Andrea Bowers, MD, the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, laptops and handheld gaming systems in today’s high-tech world has brought with it an unfortunate consequence – a new host of repetitive strain injuries (also known as RSIs) that stem from our increased use of these devices.
What’s a repetitive strain injury?
In a nutshell, an RSI takes root when a part of either the musculoskeletal or the nervous system is strained or damaged due to a repetitive task that causes a person to sustain an awkward or forceful position or exertion. A sudden, sharp pain, unusual fatigue, or tingling and numbness in the afflicted area are among the symptoms of an RSI. Dr. Bowers regularly sees patients who are suffering from these sorts of injuries, and here she offers a few words of wisdom to the hopelessly tech-obsessed (and, let’s face it – that’s most of us).
All ThumbsOpposable thumbs are a much-lauded feature of our primate species, and for good reason; tech use aside, they sure do come in handy (pun intended) for all sorts of tasks and inventions that have advanced the human race. But we ask a lot of our thumbs these days – too much, some might argue. They hit our space bars, compose our on-the-go emails, and help the Super Mario Brothers save Princess Peach on family game night. And for the text-messagers and gamers among us, especially, our thumbs don’t get much of a break. The RSI associated with overuse of our thumbs has had different names over the years, says Dr. Bowers. “In the late ‘80s, we called it ‘Nintendo thumb.’ In the ‘90s, it became ‘Blackberry thumb.’” No matter what you call it, the swelling, pain, and tenderness are the same, and it can put you at greater risk for more serious issues. These include carpal tunnel syndrome or even stenosing tenosynovitis, also called ‘trigger thumb,’ in which the thumb locks into a bent position and needs to be manually straightened. “The more severe cases can require injections, or even surgery,” warns Dr. Bowers. Her advice? “If you can, back off from the offending activity. You might, for example, pick up the phone instead of sending 30 texts to have the same conversation.” For those for whom texting or mobile email is required for work: “Try recruiting other fingers, and take frequent breaks. Massage the affected area, and take an over-the-counter oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for pain as needed.”
For the Laptop Lovers
When the laptop computer was first introduced to the market, it was not meant to replace its stationary desktop counterpart. In fact, it wasn’t able to – technologically speaking, buying a laptop years ago meant settling for slower processing speed and less memory. These days, however, many laptops are just as powerful as their bigger, bulkier siblings. Translation: more and more people are using laptops as their primary, or even sole, computer. Convenient, yes, but bad news for our bodies.
The built-in track pad found on most laptops concentrates a lot of activity into a cramped space, and one that forces awkward hand movement. The keyboard and screen being so close together makes for uncomfortable typing, and, in most cases, the need to bend at the neck to properly view the display. Because laptops are so portable, users are often away from their desk and computing at long stretches with far-from-ideal body posture.
“If possible,” says Dr. Bowers, “use a desktop computer as your primary work machine.” The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration has a whole section of their website dedicated to setting up a safe and ergonomic desktop workstation.
And when you must use a laptop? “Use a peripheral mouse and keyboard whenever possible,” says Dr. Bowers. Several companies now are even making a new kind of mouse that is basically a high-tech glove – your hand becomes the mouse. “Some of those options may be expensive, but they’re worth at least checking out.”
Sit up Straight!
Your mother was right – good posture not only improves your appearance, but it’s just plain good for your body. Today’s final culprit of tech-induced tribulation is the sinister slouch. To illustrate, here’s a quick quiz: How have you been sitting as you’ve read this article? a) My head is held high b) My computer screen is directly in front of me, at eye level c) My shoulders are back and my spine is straight d) Both of my feet are flat on the floor e) All of the above f) None of the above If you answered e), congratulations! You can be an example for the rest of us, who largely tend to fall into the f) group. The unfortunate news for the rest of us: Sustained slouching can lead to all sorts of aches and pains – even, in some cases, serious injury. “You can develop headaches, neck pain, back pain, bursitis, nerve impingement, issues with the trapezius (shoulder) muscles, the rotator cuff,” says Dr. Bowers. The list goes on and on. “But these problems are all avoidable. Good lower back support, straight posture of the upper back, and frequent breaks (she recommends a 10-minute break for every hour spent sitting in front of the computer) are all going to help prevent problems down the road.”