By ERIN ALLDAY
San Francisco Chronicle
February 03, 2010
And not just the neck, either. All these newfangled gadgets also are hurting our backs, shoulders, arms and hands. The kids are suffering from "text thumb" and their parents are getting "BlackBerry neck."
"I have a lot of patients who come in and say my mom is 80 years old, I'm 50, and I've got more pain than her," said Dr. Srinivas Ganesh, a sports-medicine specialist with Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, Calif. "But we have a much more sedentary lifestyle, and much more computer interfacing with laptops and PDAs and cell phones. We see a lot of poor posturing, a lot of stress on the wrists."
Strains and pains caused by modern technology are hardly new -- workplace ergonomics is a multimillion-dollar industry -- and pretty much anyone who's ever typed on a computer keyboard knows all about carpal tunnel syndrome.
But orthopedists and others who specialize in muscle and joint injuries say there's no question that the surge of handheld technology is leading to a new wave of aches and pains. Doctors say they struggle now to keep up with the latest equipment and what it might mean for their patients. Apple's new iPad, for example, has caught the attention of doctors who wonder what new complaints they'll hear.
"The engineers spend a lot of time thinking about how people use new devices. But when you release them to a large population, you run into issues that were never perceived beforehand," said Dr. Matthew Smuck, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Stanford Spine Center. "That's what happened with desktop computers, and there's a whole science behind ergonomics now."
The neck and upper back seem to be taking the brunt of the pain. Laptops are a big culprit, because as the name implies, many people sit with them in their laps. That might be convenient, but it usually means the screen is too low to be comfortable, and people have to hold their heads at an awkward angle, which strains muscles in the back and neck.
Smart phones and other handheld devices like MP3 players can be even worse for the back and neck, since people hold them even lower than laptops and the screens are so small.
For people who send upward of 100 text messages a day, the pain is usually focused on their thumbs and wrists. The thumb muscles, which spread across the back of the hand and into the wrist, aren't used to all that up-and-down motion.
The tiny keyboards that are becoming increasingly standard on cell phones might make texting easier and faster, but it's not helping with thumb injuries. The keys are so small that it just means the thumb muscles have to work harder, Ganesh said.
"And the thumbs don't get any rest because they're constantly text-messaging," he said. "Our fingers are pretty good with the flexion, but every time we lift them up we use tendons that go over the top and side, and that motion can cause a tendinitis to occur right at the wrist."
The cure for thumb injuries is usually to cut back on text-messaging -- hardly a palatable treatment to anyone who is addicted to texting. Fortunately, doctors say, treating most other technology-related injuries is less challenging.
The most important preventive tool is simple awareness, say doctors and others who treat back and neck pains. People who regularly use handheld technology -- or even a desktop computer or laptop -- should take frequent breaks.
They should get up and walk around at least once an hour. To prevent eyestrain, they should frequently look away from the screen and focus on an object in the distance. Every 10 minutes or so, they should stop for a few seconds to make sure nothing hurts.
"There needs to be a lot more self-awareness. We get so wrapped up in the work we do that we sometimes don't bother to check in with our bodies," said Gary Witt, director of the San Francisco School of Massage. "These devices are supposed to be making everything simpler for us, but there are more physical ailments coming from them."
Tech Age health tips
Limit texting: Don't send too many text messages. If your thumbs or wrists hurt from texting, cut back.
Rest: Every five or 10 minutes, take a brief break to listen to your body and move around if you're uncomfortable.
Move: When sitting at a laptop or desktop computer, take a break at least once an hour and stand up and walk around.
Look away: When looking at a small screen -- watching a movie on an iPod, for example, or reading e-mails on a PDA -- look up frequently and focus your eyes on something far away to help prevent eyestrain.
Support elbows: Rest your elbows on an armrest or tuck them into your sides to support your arms and shoulders when using a handheld device. This also raises the screen closer to eye level, which alleviates neck stress.
Call a doctor: If you feel sharp pain, pain shooting down your arms or tingling in your hands and fingers, see a doctor.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
Publish A Letter in SitNews Read Letters/Opinions