Dr. Jessica Hong Wing Lee, DC – Hong Kong Chiropractor

Information and Thoughts About Chiropractic, Health, and the Human Body.

Is Your Blackberry Giving You a Health Condition? The Dreaded Blackberry Thumb!

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(Aka Cell Phone Thumb, iPhone Thumb, Text Messaging Thumb)

In recent years, it seemsyou can’t go anywhere without seeing people on their smartphones.  In the elevator everyone is looking down at his or her phone and texting.  At dinner with friends, everyone is texting.  In the subway, everyone is texting. 

A relatively new condition has surfaced called “Blackberry Thumb”. This condition is not solely limited to the handheld device named Blackberry.  It may occur with any device that primarily uses the thumb for typing.  Blackberry Thumb is a catchall phrase used to describe a repetitive strain injury (RSI) of the thumb that is caused by irritation of the muscles and tendons of the thumb used to press the buttons on smart phones, PDA’s, and other devices.  These RSI have existed for a long time in the desktop and laptop computer users, and is now spreading to the mobile handheld device community.

This is reminiscent of the 80’s and 90’s when a condition called “Nintendoitis” or “Gamer’s Thumb” appeared when kids complained of pain in their thumbs after hours of nonstop video gaming.  It is no wonder that some console systems now have health disclaimers stating that when playing video games there may be occasional discomfort in the hands, arms, shoulder, neck, and other parts of the body.  They also warn that if one experiences persistent or recurring symptoms of discomfort, pain, throbbing, aching, tingling, numbness, burning, or stiffness, to seek a qualified health professional in a timely manner.

How Common Is This Issue?

Currently, there are no statistics as to how many people suffer from this type of thumb issue, but clinicians have reported an increase in related cases.  In January of this year, the American Society of Hand Therapists issued a consumer alert stating that handheld electronics are causing an increasing amount of carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.  There is definitely the potential for this issue to become extremely widespread as these devices gain popularity.  There has been a substantial increase in cell phone text usage in the past few years that suggests this issue has the potential to affect a large amount of the population in the future.

Why Does Blackberry Thumb Develop?

The thumb is one of the least dexterous fingers and it was not meant to be used so rigorously for activities such as touch-typing at high speeds.  This is why on computer keyboards, we only use the thumb for the spacebar!  Blackberry Thumb is a repetitive strain injury, which often occurs when a person’s activities require prolonged and constant use of a specific muscle group.  Instead of a single traumatic event, RSI occur due to repetitive demands.

When the tendons and ligaments become mechanically tired, there are small tears created in the connective tissue.  Usually this takes time to heal.  But often we don’t give our bodies enough recovery time, so then the same tissues get put under stress again and this effect cumulates. When the tissue damage is significant enough and passes a certain threshold, then physical symptoms begin to emerge including pain and dysfunction.

RSI can affect basically any part of the body that is subjected to repetitive stress.  Over the long term, RSI can sometimes lead to premature arthritis.  Blackberry Thumb may progress in some people to other conditions such as deQuervain’s Tenosynovitis, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and Trigger Finger.

How Do I Know If I Have Blackberry Thumb?

Blackberry thumb often presents as an achy and throbbing pain located at the base of the thumb, in the thumb web space, or in the space between the wrist and the thumb, which may continue even when the thumb is at rest.  Some people may experience pain in the other fingers and wrist as well.  There may be some tingling, coldness, or loss of sensation in the region of complaint.  In more advanced cases, a loss of grip strength, weakness or fatigue may be noted as well.  Blisters on the fingers may also be present.

Also associated with handheld device use is postural strain from the typical cell phone texting pose where one’s neck is bent forward and down, the shoulders are rounded, the elbows are bent and elevated, and the thumbs are typing away.

How is Blackberry Thumb Treated?

Most people are quite addicted to their mobile devices so giving them up would not be an option; however, ultimately, decreasing usage or eliminating the use of this type of mobile device for texting may be necessary.  The most common self-treatment methods include icing, rest, and use of over-the-counter pain medications.  Some people have been advised to wear a splint.  Blackberry Thumb massage has begun to crop up around town.  Several spas have developed massage sessions geared towards dealing with this issue.

Speaking with your chiropractor or medical doctor is a good strategy.  Chiropractors often use manual therapy to restore joint motion and to loosen the soft tissues in the area and also create a rehabilitation protocol to prevent relapses.  In extremely severe cases, management may include corticosteroid injections or surgery.

Can I Prevent Blackberry Thumb From Happening?

There are definitely strategies you can employ to prevent Blackberry Thumb: 

  • Abstain from using the Blackberry for lengthy typing tasks.  If this is something you find you have to do often, try switching to a desktop computer for tasks like these, or consider a plug-in keyboard for your device.
  • Try to use other fingers to press buttons on handheld devices and vary the fingers that are being used.
  • Take frequent breaks while using your handheld device.
  • Hold the device properly so that your wrists are in neutral position.  If possible, place a pillow in your lap so your wrists are in an upright position.
  • Activate the autotype feature on your device that anticipates the word you are typing so that you can use less keystrokes.
  • Switching to a smaller device where the span for the keypad is not so large may help to decrease the strain on your thumbs.
  • Use shortcut features to reduce the need to scroll with your thumbs
  • Make sure your workspace ergonomics are appropriate so that no extra stress is being put on your thumbs and hands.
  • Consider using a speech to text program so that you can talk into the phone rather than typing.
  • Perform regular stretching and strengthening exercises for your thumb, fingers, hands, and wrists.

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