Move over carpal tunnel: Now it's 'BlackBerry Thumb'

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 20, 2006
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You may love your handheld wireless personal digital assistant (PDA), but overuse can earn you two thumbs down in the form of repetitive stress injury to the hand and thumb.

“BlackBerry Thumb”—so named by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)—is the group’s catch-all phrase for the pain and/or numbness in the thumbs and hands that comes from spending too much time using your PDA to check and compose e-mails, write and send instant messages and access the Internet.

The Alexandria, Va.-based national professional organization represents more than 66,000 physical therapists, physical therapist assistants and students.

“The use of PDAs is no longer limited to the eight hours spent in the workplace,” Margot Miller, president of APTA’s Occupational Health Special Interest Group and a physical therapist, says in a press release.

“More and more, people are depending on these devices to stay in touch with friends and family before and after the work day and on the weekends, as well as having access to work when they leave the office; that is where the heart of the problem lies.”

People who use their PDAs for more than short intervals several times a day are more likely to develop symptoms that range from swelling and hand throbbing to tendonitis. Overuse can aggravate underlying arthritis, something that can plague middle-aged business people, according to Miller.

“Because the keyboard of a PDA is so small and because the thumb, which is the least dexterous part of the hand, is overtaxed (for faster typing), the risk of injury skyrockets,” she says.

Dr. Mark E. Pruzansky, a New York physician whose specialties include hand and microsurgery, has come across BlackBerry Thumb.

“It is a strain of the basal joint of the thumb, where it meets the wrist, occasionally where it meets the hand,” he told HR News in an e-mail, but noted, “it is not exceedingly common and it is unrelated to [carpal tunnel syndrome].”

Pruzansky, of the Pruzansky Hand, Athletic and Sports Trauma Institute, cares for athletes from numerous local high schools and teaches at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

BlackBerry Thumb “is less common in teens and [those] younger, as their ligaments and joints are more resilient and able to absorb stress,” he said.

The APTA says that more than 2.5 million people use BlackBerry or similar hand-held devices, and it cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data that show that musculoskeletal disorders, which include repetitive strain injuries, accounted for a third of all workplace injuries that were reported in 2003, the latest data available.

That comes as no surprise to Miller.

“There is a reason why ergonomic disorders are the fastest-growing category of work-related illnesses,” she said. “We're going to continue seeing an increase in complaints resulting from repetitive strain injuries if users insist on using them for prolonged periods of time and in awkward positions.”

While Miller’s first suggestion is to seek a physical therapist if you experience these symptoms, she said typical treatments include:

  • Applying ice to the affected area to decrease swelling and discomfort.
  • Stretching exercises to increase blood flow to the area.
  • Using a properly fitted thumb splint for a period of time to rest the joint and prevent further irritation and discomfort.
  • A cortisone injection.

In worst-case scenarios, some people need surgery to remove scar tissue that has thickened the tendons inside tunnels that sheath them. The tendon sheath is the outer covering that surrounds the tendon, which is a cord that connects muscle to bone, according to the APTA. Synovial fluid inside the sheath enables tendons to move smoothly for movement to occur.

“Over time, as irritation occurs and the fluid becomes thicker inside the sheath, the tendon cannot move as freely. Movement becomes restricted and can become painful. This is the case with BlackBerry Thumb,” the APTA says.

It recommends the following techniques to prevent the techno-malady:

  • Take frequent breaks from your PDA. It’s harmful to type for more than a few minutes at a time.
  • Write fewer and shorter messages and learn to abbreviate your responses.
  • Try to avoid thumb-typing; use your other fingers.
  • If possible, place a support in your lap so your wrists are in a more upright position and not flexed or bent.

Pruzansky echoes the group’s prevention tips and notes that “stretching exercises done every half-hour are helpful.”

Various hand exercises can be found on APTA’s site.

“Listen to your body,” advised APTA’s Miller. “Be aware of your symptoms and take personal responsibility.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to www.shrm.org/hrnews.

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