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Video game injuries common in thumbs and now elbow, wrist
FAMC occupational therapist and certified hand therapist Brenda Halbmaier points out on a model where carpal tunnel syndrome occurs in the wrist. Halbmaier also said that the game controllers with the new Nintendo Wii system are more likely to give people carpal tunnel then the traditional controllers. - Matt Gade/Fremont Tribune

Playing video games can be a real pain.

In the shoulder.

In the wrist and elbow.

In the thumb.

Don’t believe it?

Just ask Jill Jakub of Fremont.

Video game injuries are nothing new. For years, people playing standard video games like Sony’s PlayStation models or Microsoft’s XBox 360 have gotten something they didn’t bargain for — sore thumbs and hands.

But now, a new wave of interactive video games led by the Nintendo Wii is causing even more problems.

Jakub knows that first-hand.

A holiday trip to Texas led to her first experience with the Wii — and her first video gaming injury.

“We were playing tennis,” Jakub said. “I was sore (in her shoulder, elbow and wrist) after playing it an hour, hour and a half.”

Playing tennis on the Wii is almost like playing tennis for real. Instead of using a standard style video game controller players use the Wii’s motion detecting controller and make the same motion as they would on a real court.

The biggest difference between playing tennis for real and playing it on the Wii is that most people would take a break or stop playing on the court altogether before they reached the several hour mark.

“You’d think there might be less of a problem with the Wii because it doesn’t have a regular controller, but that’s not the case,” said Jakub, who admitted she should have known better because she also is an occupational therapist. “I didn’t really notice it while I was playing. I guess I just noticed it more afterward. I was pretty sore.”

As an occupational therapist, Jakub knew what stretching exercises would help and was able to work out her problem rather quickly. However, a regular person playing video games wouldn’t have that knowledge at their fingertips and could get hurt because of the repetitive movements.

The original video game injuries still are a problem.

“Video gamer’s thumb” is a very real condition, said Brenda Halbmaier, occupational hand therapist and certified hand therapist at Fremont Area Medical Center. She said continued stress on the tendons, nerves and ligaments in the hand can lead to long-term injuries like tendonitis, bursitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

“The problem is it’s all thumbs,” Halbmaier said. “That’s a very small muscle group.”

“Video gamer’s thumb” is a repetitive stress injury that causes swelling at the base of the thumb because of the over use of video games. It can affect the hands, wrists, forearms and shoulders with symptoms that range from fatigue and loss of strength to minor or severe aches and pains, burning and tingling.

“We see a lot of repetitive wrist injuries,” Halbmaier said. “I’ve had parents ask about their concerns with their kids playing games and what effects that can have on them.”

She said pain in the elbow and wrist are the most common injuries related to video games. Most of this pain comes in the form of tendonitis, an inflammation of the tendon, but don’t have to be serious.

“If the same motion occurs over a long period of time without rest in between, it causes inflammation in the tendon,” Halbmaier said. “Rest is the best thing. If you can take 30 seconds every 10-15 minutes to change your positioning it can make a big difference.”

With new interactive game systems like Nintendo’s Wii, the problems can go beyond the hand and wrist.

The more interactive games such as tennis, golf or baseball for the Wii require more physical exertion and can cause more than just the regular video game injuries. Halbmaier said excessive gamers and out-of-shape occasional players run injury risks ranging from sprained ankles and knees to pulled back muscles.

“I don’t think you should play for more than an hour at a time,” Halbmaier said. “An hour a day is not a problem, but two to four hours is. It’s the period of time you play each time.”

Video game players from around the country have been reporting their ailments on Web sites like www.wiihaveaproblem.com. Those ailments range from broken fingers and toes to pulled hamstrings. The site also highlights black eyes and cuts suffered by bystanders when one of the controllers flies out of a player’s hand.

Most video game injuries can be relieved with rest, but others can start to interrupt other things in the gamer’s life.

“If both of your wrists are hurting, you don’t have the ability to use the other hand,” Halbmaier said.

She said the longer a gamer lets an injury go, the longer that injury will take to heal.

“As soon as you start to hurt, stop and take a break,” Halbmaier said. “If you let it go for too long, it could become something you need to seek treatment for.”

Ice and rest are easy at-home remedies, but if injuries get too bad doctors can prescribe physical therapy.

“Even that just takes a few appointments,” Halbmaier said.

Gamers also can wrap a rubber band around their fingers and flex them, stretch their hands, squeeze their hands into a ball or piece of clay for strength or use weights for wrist curls.

“Hopefully, since it’s going to be summer, kids will be playing outside more,” Halbmaier said. “But I still think it’s something parents need to be aware of.”

For Jakub, one injury isn’t enough to deter her.

“I want to get my own Wii,” she said.

However, this time Jakub said she’ll take more breaks.

Protecting yourself

To protect against injuries, the American Physical Therapy Association recommends the following:

* Keep your wrists as straight as you can and don’t let them bend downward when you hold the controller.

* Sit comfortably in a chair that gives you good back support with your feet comfortably on the floor.

* Practice good posture while playing.

* Stretch and move every 20 minutes or so to give your head, neck and shoulder muscles a break.

* Stop playing if your hands feel weak or if they ache, burn or tingle.

* Look for warning signs such as headaches, fatigue, muscle pain or cramping. If these signs occur, take a break or participate in an alternate activity.

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