The Therapist Is In...Digital Disorders

The Therapist Is In...
Digital Disorders
by Shannon Murphy, MPT

We live in rapidly changing world in which technology often competes with biology. People of all ages and backgrounds are clicking away on electronic devices that become smaller and sleeker every year ... and yet our bodies do not change in dimension. This issue of "human factors" is one that engineers try to address through design when developing cars, computers, phones, etc, but our society values convenience and fuels the demand for miniature gadgets. And there is little debate about the utility that mobile devices have added to our lives -- whether it be managing a schedule, using the internet, maintaining a database of music, or sending quick messages via text. But all this electronic interaction can lead to a number of problems in the body-particularly the thumbs, wrists, forearms, shoulders and neck.
"Blackberry Thumb"
The problem of thumb pain from excessive typing on mobile/mini keyboards is actually known as "Blackberry Thumb", after the PDA (personal digital assistant) that first made the condition famous. Videogame enthusiasts have long been susceptible to a similar condition known more generically as "gamer's thumb", so the phenomenon is not truly "new". Both fall into the category of repetitive-motion injuries, which refers overusing the body's tissues to repeatedly perform some task.
Most people work type on mobile devices with their thumbs (in positions that are unnatural for the hand and wrist) and typically in a a forward-head/looking-down posture. When the intention of taking 5 minutes to check your e-mail turns into an hour browsing the web, chatting with friends, or playing games, the effect of those unnatural positions adds up. As a result, it is not uncommon to feel aches and pains throughout the thumb region, as well other parts of the arm and neck.
The body is designed to move, and prolonged static postures of any kind tend to deprive the muscles of bloodflow...which, in turn, leads to many chemical processes involved in tissue breakdown, inflammation, spasm and pain.
Signs of Overuse
If you spend a lot of time using mobile devices, be aware of signs that suggest overuse:
* Early stage -- general aches and pains in the thumb, wrist, elbow, shoulder or neck that develop after long periods of using your mobile device, and get better with rest
* Later stage - pain and tightness in all the same areas that tend to persist after you've stopped using the device or come on more quickly than before
If left untreated, pain will typically become more constant and start to affect other types of activities like turning keys, opening jars, driving, etc. The thumb is particularly vulnerable because it is such a mobile joint...which is essential for hand function, but not ideal for repetitive motion.
An ounce of prevention ...
It is always better to prevent an injury than to struggle with treating one! A few options to help limit the chance of developing an overuse syndrome.
* Take frequent breaks - rest after every 5 minutes of continuous use. Look up for 20-30 seconds to give your neck a break
* Prop your arms if able (on a purse, bookbag, desk), to keep the device higher and decrease the amount of stress on the neck
* Write fewer and shorter messages! Save the novels for a real computer (and take breaks there, too!)
* Keep your wrists straight
* Occasionally type with your fingers to give the thumbs a break
* Consider using a portable ergonomic keyboard for your PDA, especially if you travel a lot and are typing consistently.
As always, once a problem has developed, get it addressed promptly. A mix of rest, ice, selective heat, bracing, exercise, and activity modification can help reverse symptoms and prevent further problems. Consult your physical therapist, physician, or other qualified healthcare professional if you think you might have a digitally-induced disorder!

This series of columns are by Shannon Murphy, MPT, Owner/Director of BodySense PT. 9 Saint Paul St, 3rd Floor, Boonsboro, MD 21713. 301-432-8585 phone, 301-432-1987 fax, smurphy@bodysensept.com.