Blackberry Thumb?

February 3rd, 2005 by

A recent posting on WEB MD raises the specter of an ailment for the new milennium: “Blackberry thumb.” The prognosis comes from hand specialists who see potential risk in the way people enter data onto their Blackberry devices.
Alan Hedge, PhD, director of the human factors and ergonomics research group at Cornell University in Ithaca, quoted in the article as saying “the thumb is not a very dexterous part of the hand. It is really designed as a stabilizer for pinch gripping with a finger. That is why you only have two of them, not eight. It is the fingers that have dexterity, not the thumb.”
The full-size typing keyboard was designed with this in mind. The more dexterous fingers are used for quick strikes on the letter keys. The relatively clumsy thumbs are limited to striking the spacebar. You know the expression: someone is “all thumbs.”
“When you switch that around (by relying heavily on the thumbs to enter data) you put a lot of strain on the thumb,” Hedge says. “So if you persist in typing a lot of information with your thumbs, you risk injury.”
Hence Querty keyboards may well pose a specific problem for people old enough to be developing arthritis. Hand surgeon Prosper Benhaim, MD, associate professor of orthopaedic and plastic surgery at UCLA, points out that there different types of tendinitis. One is trigger thumb. The other is de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, involving the tendons on the side of the wrist right where the forearm joins the wrist. These tendons participate in controlling the thumb and are very sensitive to repetitive motions.
What’s the treatment for BlackBerry thumb? “Lay off thumb typing,” the experts say. Do they really believe that Blackberry devotees will agree to that?
“If people have true tendinitis, I might give them a cortisone shot,” Benhaim says. “Or I might use a thumb brace, maybe. I would certainly tell them to rest it. And then to minimize the stress and strain. Do more typing on your keyboard and then sync over to your BlackBerry rather than typing longer messages on BlackBerry itself.”
A Word to the Wise
Ok, we are not recommending that you give up on your Blackberry. In fact, none of the hand experts who consulted for the article has seen a single patient with BlackBerry thumb. At this point, it’s all conjecture. But think back to those ergonomic videos of the early 1990s, where the symptoms of carpal tunnel were described in delicious detail. Half the viewers walked away convinced that they felt a distinct tingling in their finger tips.
So readers with Blackberry devices, how are your thumbs feeling today? If you decide that you do indeed have a thumb problem, it’s probably work related. So please do us a favor. If you decide to pursue a workers compensation claim, let us know how it turns out. (Perhaps we should say, let us know how long it takes for the claim to be denied!) In any event, we will try to stay ahead of the curve on trendy diagnoses.