Wired for Trouble: Blackberry Thumb, Cell Phone Elbow, IPod Ear

February 1st, 2006 by

The Insider has warned tech-savvy readers that many of our indespensable gadgets can be the source of injuries. A year ago we wrote about Blackberry Thumb, to which we now return. Perhaps this is risk management on a small and highly personal level, but it’s risk management nonetheless. Despite the fact that few people seem concerned, in the interests of public awareness, we now expand our focus from the lowly thumb to include elbows, ears, and perhaps even the brain.
Thumb Troubles
People addicted to their Blackberry’s – or to text messaging on other portable devices – may find themselves experiencing some pain and numbness, possible symptoms of “Blackberry Thumb.” It’s really just another word for tendonitis and the latest incarnation of what used to be called “Nintendonitis.” Of course, if Blackberry has to shut down due to a long simmering patent dispute (the company appears to have lost out at the final level of judicial appeal), “Blackberry Thumb” will disappear as all Blackberry users inadvertantly follow the doctors’s advice for treating the ailment: lay off thumb typing for a while. If the shut down is avoided, loyal users in need of a break could try one-hand operation, typing in the letters with the blunt end of a pencil or a stylus, or simply typing shorter messages.
Moving up the arm, we find that people who spend a lot of time on their phones (cellular or land based) may be susceptible to cubital tunnel syndrome, a kind of “tennis elbow” that is caused by pressure on the ulnar nerve. The symptoms are very similar to the pain that comes from hitting your funny bone, which is actually the ulnar nerve located on the inside of the elbow. The nerve runs through a passage called the cubital tunnel. When this area becomes irritated from injury or pressure, it can lead to the syndrome.
Numbness on the inside of the hand and in the ring and little fingers is an early sign of cubital tunnel syndrome. (Are you feeling these symptoms already?) The numbness may develop into pain. The numbness is often felt when the elbows are bent for long periods, such as when talking on the phone or while sleeping. The hand and thumb may also become clumsy as the muscles are impacted.
The solution is simple, but many people fail to follow it: Keep switching hands (and ears) as you talk. Or even better, get a headset.
What did you say?
Traveling further up the body, we come to the head – source of many of the world’s problems, indeed! Apple’s little Nano/Ipod devices have become enormously popular (over 22.5 million sold in 2005). This line of elegant, miniature products enables people to shut out the world, no matter where they are, and listen to music (or books, lectures, TV shows, whatever). The danger is the in-the-ear design of IPod earplugs: you are literally pumping sound directly into the ear drum. With the long battery life of these devices, people can place a strain on their eardrums for which evolution has not really prepared us.
Once again, the solution is relatively simple. Keep the volume at a reasonable level and take frequent breaks. You also might want to limit the heavy metal bands.
Moderation in an Immoderate World
In yesterday’s State of the Union address, the president acknowledges that we are addicted to oil. (That’s a bit like doctors telling us that we as a nation have a problem with prescription medications.) We are addicted to far more than oil. Omni-present devices connect us (phones and internet), disconnect us (music) and distract us (games). Our brains are on overload.
Here’s a prescription that doesn’t require a note from the doctor: a few times a week, leave behind your cell phone/Blackberry/Treo, IPod, portable CD player/radio, put on your sneakers and go out for a walk. As far as I can tell, walking is unambiguously good for you. It connects you the old fashion way: through the simple enjoyment of the sights, smells and sounds of the world around you. And the only energy consumed is your own.