TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Blackberry Users Learning Painful Lessons

Blackberry Users Learning Painful Lessons

Alicia Chang (
Thu, 20 Oct 2005 22:50:07 -0500

By ALICIA CHANG, AP Science Writer

Chris Claypool was addicted to his BlackBerry wireless handheld. Like
many users, he never thought twice about pecking away at lightning
speed, replying to a wave of e-mails.

Last year, the 37-year-old agricultural sales director from Post
Falls, Idaho, noticed a throbbing sensation in this thumbs whenever he
typed. He switched to tapping with his index finger, then his middle
digit and finally his pinky. But his thumbs pained him to the point
where he can't even press the buttons on his TV remote control.

After months of aching, Claypool took a break. Now he only uses his
BlackBerry to send short messages -- typing with the tip of a pencil
eraser whenever his thumbs get sore.

"It affects business because I can't whack away on my BlackBerry like
I used to," he said. "It's just too painful."

Repetitive motion injuries, which have long afflicted desktop and
laptop computer users, are invading the mobile handheld world.

There's even an informal name for the malady -- "BlackBerry Thumb" --
a catch-all phrase that describes a repetitive stress injury of the
thumb as a result of overusing small gadget keypads.n

Business executives and tech-savvy consumers are increasingly using
BlackBerries, Treos, Sidekicks and other devices with miniature
keyboards designed for thumb-tapping to stay connected while on the

And that has some ergonomic and hand experts worried about injuries
from overexertion.

"If you're trying to type 'War and Peace' with your thumbs, then
you're going to have a problem," warned Alan Hedge, director of the
Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University in
Ithaca, N.Y.

No national statistics exist on how many people suffer from this type
of thumb ailment, but some doctors say they are seeing an upswing in
related cases, said Dr. Stuart Hirsch, an orthopedist at St. Joseph's
Hospital and Medical Center in Paterson, N.J.

"It's mostly the road warrior who prefers to answer e-mails on a thumb
keyboard," said Hirsch. "If all you did was just answer with a simple
yes and no, it would not be a dilemma."

For as long as video gamers have been blasting aliens, so-called
"Gamer's Thumb" has been a sore spot for them, as well. With tens of
millions of portable video game machines on the market, lots of young
hands risk digit abuse.

Games for such devices generally include some type of printed warning
about injury risks from prolonged playing.

Earlier this year, the American Society of Hand Therapists issued a
consumer alert, warning users of small electronic gadgets that heavy
thumb use could lead to painful swelling of the sheath around the
tendons in the thumb.

The group recommended taking frequent breaks during e-mailing and
resting one's arms on a pillow for support.

A booklet that ships with the Nintendo DS handheld system advises a 10
to 15 minute break for each hour of play, and a break of at least
several hours if gamers experience wrist or hand soreness.

"People tend to use just one finger over and over again and it's that
repetitive use with one digit that could lead to problems," said
Stacey Doyon, vice president of the American Society of Hand
Therapists and a registered occupational therapist in Portland, Maine.

The BlackBerry, which debuted in 1999, employs a full QWERTY keypad for
thumb typing to automatically send and receive e-mail. About 2.5 million
people currently use Blackberries, more than double from a year ago.

An executive for Research In Motion Ltd., which makes the BlackBerry,
said the company considers ergonomic factors when designing its

"Of course, any product can be overused ... so people should listen to
their own bodies and adjust their routine if necessary. But I would
caution against confusing rare examples of overuse with the typical
experience," Mark Guibert, vice president of marketing, wrote in an

Musculoskeletal disorders, which include repetitive strain injuries,
accounted for a third of all workplace injuries and illnesses reported
in 2003 -- the latest data available, according to the U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics.

Specialists say the thumb -- considered by many as an island because
it is set apart from the other fingers -- is among the least dexterous
digit and is not meant to be rigorously worked out.

For people who insist on typing more than a sentence with their
thumbs, external keyboards that connect to the gadgets may be a less
painful alternative, said Dr. Jennifer Weiss, assistant professor of
orthopedics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Treatment for BlackBerry thumb may include wearing a splint and
applying ice to the affected area. If the pain persists, doctors may
opt to inject the thumb area with a cortisone shot. Surgery may be
required as a last resort.

John Orminski, a 44-year-old information technology manager from
Pontiac, Mich., went to a doctor in the spring after feeling a strain
in his right thumb.

On any given day, Orminski uses his thumb repeatedly to punch clients'
telephone numbers, scroll through his address book and update his
calendar on his BlackBerry.

Orminski already suffers from golfer's elbow -- a form of tendinitis --
from playing the sport. But unlike his elbow pain, which occurs in
spurts, Orminski's thumb woes tend to flare up more often.

He recently started physical therapy for this thumb -- receiving
electrical stimulation and massage to relax the muscles.

"It can get sore and tender, but I'm learning to live with it."

On the Net:

American Society of Hand Therapists:

Research in Motion:

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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