December 6, 2006 1:16 PM PST
Perspective: Green thumb good, BlackBerry thumb badSee all Perspectives
But these days, when you put in your thumb and a pull out a BlackBerry, you may mutter "what a sore thumb have I." Indeed, " Blackberry thumb" may be joining our modern-day vocabulary, as did "tennis elbow" some time ago.
According to a recent report by the American Physical Therapy Association, handheld electronic devices like Research In Motion's BlackBerrys, Palm's Treos and Danger's Sidekicks are rapidly becoming a source of chronic pain and injury for device users.
Handheld devices can lead to repetitive-stress injury, which can cause pain and numbness in the thumbs and hand joints, as noted by Margot Miller, the President of APTA's Occupational Health Special Interest Group. She points out that this results from people spending far too much time using their handheld devices for sending e-mails and instant messages, and for surfing the Internet for work and personal reasons.
Miller explains that handheld-device abusers are more likely to develop physical problems. These are people who use their devices at least several times a day for more than short periods of time. Symptoms can include swelling, throbbing and tendonitis. Furthermore, overuse of handheld devices can aggravate underlying conditions such as arthritis.
In the world of portable devices, smaller has been deemed better, in terms of the convenience of not having to lug around bulky equipment. However, there obviously is a price for smallness. The keyboards on handheld devices are quite tiny, and much thumb use is required--yet the thumb is the least dexterous part of the hand, as notes Miller. Thus, the risk of thumb injury increases exponentially.
So what are handheld device users to do? Besides taking a break and smelling the real-world roses once in a while (which your columnist highly recommends), employers can train employees in terms of best ways to hold and use handheld devices. Employers can also encourage employees to send only short e-mails on their devices. Employers have an incentive in this regard, as they want a healthy and able work force, and they want to minimize their own potential liability with respect to employees who have been injured by working on employer-provided handheld devices.
Miller advises people to pay close attention to what their bodies are telling them. For example, if you start feeling pain in the thumb area, treatments such as icing, stretching, using a properly fitted thumb splint and even getting cortisone injections can be warranted under various circumstances. Miller states that surgery sometimes is necessary.
Of course, it's better to head off a problem becomes it becomes serious. Miller recommends that upon the onset of symptoms, a handheld-device user should seek out a physical therapist. And apparently, some resorts now are offering hand massages to soothe the aches and pains caused by handheld-device use.
I can assure you that no thumbs were damaged in the creation of this piece, as it was typed on a full keyboard in front of a computer screen and not on a handheld device.
is a partner in the San Francisco office of . His focus includes information technology and intellectual-property disputes. To receive his weekly columns, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Subscribe" in the subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only, and it should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.