BlackBerry users feel thumb-struck
Sandy Boyd's BlackBerry had become her passion. Now it has become a source of pain. About three months ago, the National Association of...
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Sandy Boyd's BlackBerry had become her passion. Now it has become a source of pain.
About three months ago, the National Association of Manufacturers vice president noticed that, as she started to type, the area between her thumb and wrist would begin to throb.
Orthopedists say they are seeing an increasing number of patients with similar symptoms, a condition known as "overuse syndrome" or "BlackBerry thumb."
Bette Keltner, dean of the Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, has been forced to shelve her BlackBerry, a handheld device that combines telephone, e-mail, messaging and Internet services with a personal organizer. After two years of constant use, her hands were in so much pain she had to stop typing.
She remembers the trigger point: a 10-hour conference where she answered about 150 e-mails. "Days later, I was in excruciating pain," she said.
The American Society of Hand Therapists in January issued a consumer alert saying handheld electronics are causing an increasing amount of carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis, sometimes severe. The society included directions on how to hold the devices properly, urging users to take breaks and, if possible, place pillows in their laps so their wrists are in a more upright position.
But at airports and hearing rooms and other places where handheld users while away pauses by thumbing their keyboards, no pillows are in evidence and breaks from the tap-tap-click of e-mailing are few.
"You become so accustomed to the convenience," Keltner said. "This is a kind of tool where you can get five things done while waiting for another meeting to happen."
Keltner has tendinitis and has spent months in various therapies, including acupuncture, acupressure and a magnetic bracelet. After she realized the BlackBerry had caused her tendinitis, she still tried to use it — but less often. Shorter notes, more breaks between e-mails. But that brought no relief. She recovered after 12 weeks of therapy. Three months later, even though she has quit messaging, she said her tendinitis is back.
BlackBerry subscribers total 2.51 million, more than double the 1.07 million subscribers a year ago. Research in Motion Ltd., maker of the BlackBerry, declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the disability issue. Other handheld devices, such as PalmOne's Treo and T-Mobile's Sidekick phones, use similar thumb-operated keyboards. The small keyboards are tough on hands and wrists, according to Paige Kurtz of the American Society of Hand Therapists.
The pains associated with BlackBerrys and other handhelds used to be common among video-game players, but Stuart Hirsch, clinical assistant professor of orthopedics at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Paterson, N.J., believes teens who are frequent gamers are less prone to injury. Also, although many handheld game devices also use thumb-operated controls, they typically don't require as much range of motion as keyboards spanning the entire alphabet as well as punctuation marks.
"Tendinitis won't affect your teenage son the way it will a parent," Hirsch said. "Children are more tolerant of overuse than adults because they are younger."
A British researcher of cyber culture, Sadie Plant, found that teenagers and young adults are becoming so adept at using their thumbs for messaging, they have started to use them for ringing doorbells and pointing.
Japanese teenagers sometimes are called "the thumb generation" because of their heavy-duty messaging. Plant has said teens use their thumbs more than index fingers, making them faster and more muscled.
Hirsch, who said he has seen at least a couple of patients with injuries related to their PDA or thumb keyboard, said he tells patients to send short answers on the devices. "Many people who are traveling use their BlackBerry to save them time," he said. "Thumbs were not designed for individuals to do this without certain limits. I'm not sure why some people have trouble with it and some don't. Some people are going to be more sensitive to this product."
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ergonomic disorders are the fastest-growing category of work-related illnesses for which it receives reports. In 1981, only 18 percent of all reported illnesses were repetitive strain injuries, known as RSI. By 1992, that figure had grown to 52 percent.
That number has leveled off, said Emil Pascarelli, author of "Dr. Pascarelli's Complete Guide to Repetitive Strain Injury: What You Need to Know About RSI and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome" and professor emeritus of clinical medicine at Columbia University.
He attributes the change to companies and employees becoming more knowledgeable about setting up a work station to prevent injuries. However, with the onslaught of tiny handheld devices, Pascarelli said, there is a "potential for an epidemic" for new repetitive strain injuries.
Boyd is trying to wean herself from her BlackBerry by writing fewer and shorter messages. "I was writing treatises on my BlackBerry," she said. "I have to not bring it with me. Because if it's near me, I'm not always so good about not using it."
Keltner, who found similar strategies didn't work, has gone cold turkey. "No more BlackBerry. I'm breaking the addiction," she said. "But I'm frustrated. I'm making more phone calls. ... I hate not being efficient."
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