Handheld electronic devices are everywhere. Right now, millions of Canadians are tapping at tiny keyboards, squinting at microscreens, and rubbing their thumbs around and around touch-sensitive pads. Each new gadget comes loaded with more bells and whistles than the last. One feature that nobody wants, however, is an affliction that's becoming a major concern as more of us join the ranks of portable tech users: repetitive strain injury (RSI).
The term "Blackberry thumb" was inspired by Research in Motion's wildly popular Blackberry - a personal digital assistant (PDA), cell phone, and wireless e-mail device in one - but heavy users of Treos, Sidekicks, iPods, and similar products are also at risk for RSI. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, if these items are abused (used several times a day for more than short intervals), they can cause chronic pain and injury.
The symptoms - pain or numbness in the thumbs and hand joints, swelling, throbbing, and tendonitis - are reminiscent of "Nintendo thumb" or "nintendonitis," the scourge of video gamers in the 1990s. (Nowadays, video game systems come with health warnings that encourage players to take breaks.)
In 2005, the American Society of Hand Therapists (ASTH) released a consumer alert, warning that overuse of Blackberries and other handheld devices can be hazardous. "Handheld electronics may require prolonged grips, repetitive motion on small buttons, and awkward wrist movements," the society stated, pointing out that many people spend hours each day pecking out e-mails or scrolling up and down address books and music playlists. "This combination can lead to hand, wrist, and arm ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis."
Experts add that the thumb, which is less dexterous than the other fingers, isn't designed to reach in one direction to enter thousands of keystrokes a day, which is what "thumbing," or typing using only the thumbs, requires.
Nevertheless, handheld devices are quickly becoming a way of life. In 2006, 17.7 million handheld computers were shipped worldwide, an increase of 18.4 % over 2005. Unfortunately, RSIs are also on the rise. The 2003 Canadian Community Health Survey, conducted by Statistics Canada, says that 55% of all repetitive strain injuries occurred at the workplace.
Part of the problem is that we are so attached to our devices; for example, checking and responding to office e-mails even when we're not supposed to be working. (Our infatuation has given birth to a new name, "crackberry," because we just can't get enough.)
Treatment for Blackberry thumb includes applying ice, wearing a thumb splint and, if necessary, a cortisone injection. Some people may even need surgery. If you want to avoid injury altogether, take note of these tips:
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