Check your pockets. If you have a cellphone, chances are it might be buzzing, or is it? Take it out of your pocket and send a text. Do your thumbs sometimes struggle to find the keys and ache, or do you even text at all?
As technology has advanced, it has allowed us to constantly keep in touch with the world, keeping it at our fingertips and in our pocket. However, a couple of new trends in health care have emerged with this widespread and incessant use of cellphones: Phantom Vibration Syndrome and Blackberry Thumbs.
Phantom Vibration Syndrome is just what it sounds like. It's becoming an increasingly documented phenomenon: cellphone users feel what they think is their cellphone buzzing,...but it's not - in fact - it's on silent mode, in another pocket, or even on the nightstand. It may not be as serious as an auto accident, but one study found that in habitual users of mobile devices, up to 70 percent of participants experienced this phenomenon, and of the 70 percent, up to 12 percent even described it as "bothersome."
So why does our body trick us into thinking we have an incoming text message or phone call? The answer may be simpler than you might think: we love to be rewarded. A new cellphone user is on a learning curve: he or she becomes accustomed to feeling the lower-amplitude vibrations, and in turn receives a text, a Facebook alert, or a host of any other information that can be sent to a cellphone. As a result of repeatedly responding to the vibrating stimulus, users feel rewarded to get new messages. This trains users' bodies to respond and detect the signal more quickly and efficiently. As the behavior is repeated, the connections in the brain become stronger, making the behavior automatic.
Since the brain is "anticipating" the stimulus and wants the reward, it makes any similar stimulus stand out. For example: at a party, if you hear your name, you immediately turn to look for the source. Our brains learn to filter out excess input so we can get more important - and in some cases life-threatening - information and respond quickly. Similarly, brushing the clothing where the cellphone is held can illicit the same response.
However, the phantom vibrations can be stronger depending on where you hold your phone, as well as how long you have held your phone there, and how long it's in that spot each day. Research has shown that holding it in the same spot every day, more than six hours, or longer than six months increases the risk of feeling these phantom vibrations. Age plays a role as well. Younger cellphone users are more susceptible to the vibrations.
The good news is that this new syndrome is reversible and relatively harmless. Studies have suggested that moving the phone to another pocket and/or turning off the vibrate feature will help decrease any phantom vibrations.
Blackberry Thumb is the next more recent technology-induced syndrome to look at.
To better understand the role texting plays in a typical teen's life (not to deny many adults as well), look at these statistics:
Cells are selling: About 75 percent of 12-17 year-olds in America now own a cellphone.
Non-verbal communication: Half of those teenagers send 50 or more text messages a day.
Text time: One-third of teens send more than 100 text messages daily.
Text tops talk: Two-thirds of texters say they are more likely to use their cellphones to text their friends rather than talk to them.
The changing face of friendship: More than half - 54 percent - of teens say they text their friends at least once a day, but only 33 percent talk to friends face-to-face daily.
The electric life: Americans between ages 8 and 18 spend an average of seven and a half hours a day with an electronic device, be it a computer, smartphone, or television.
As it turns out, our thumbs weren't designed with texting in mind. Using the thumbs in a continually flexed position has spurred a rise in repetitive stress injuries to the thumb, and more commonly referred to as "Blackberry thumb." The term was coined in the late 1990s when the Blackberry first hit the market and its constant chronic users found themselves with painful, achy, swollen thumbs. While Blackberry thumb doesn't exclusively come from using the Blackberry phone, it can be caused by repetitive use of any cellphone when the thumbs are in the flexed position for long periods of time. As mobile phone technology develops, handsets are getting smaller with buttons closer together. Small, fine movements tend to aggravate more than larger movements. Our thumbs were designed to help us grip and grasp objects, not to continually text and type.
Prolonged flexion of the thumb causes a buildup of scar tissue on the flexor tendon, as well as inflammation and swelling. As the tendons are held in the bent position, they build up scar tissue, which is then caught on the tendon sheath. When the finger is straightened, it may "snap" or "pop." In some cases the finger may lock in the flexed position, necessitating using the opposite hand to forcefully straighten the thumb. In other cases the actual nerves in the thumb can be inflamed and irritated, which can cause local pain in the fingertip rather than at the base of the thumb.
Since thumbs are the primary digits used to press the cellphone keys, they take most of the brunt. Imagine leaning against a wall for hours and hours with nothing but your thumbs. After a while, this would obviously get uncomfortable. The same thing happens with texting with one's thumbs. Hundreds and thousands of times of pressing down onto the cellphone keys adds up every day until the thumb gets irritated. Symptoms of Blackberry Thumb, AKA repetitive stress injury (RSI), include pain, cramping, numbness, discomfort, and tendon snapping or locking at the base of the thumb.
If gentle massage of your thumbs web doesn't do the trick, treatment for the thumb can include physical therapy, ice packs, anti-inflammatories, joint manipulation, medications, paraffin baths, splints, or even surgery in extreme situations. Stretching is usually enough to cure most cases, along with decreasing the use of the device, or switching hands. However, in cases where the pain is constant, or interferes with daily activities, it's essential that cellphone users experiencing these symptoms seek treatment before their injuries worsen or become chronic.
In our patient base at Multicare Physicians Group we have seen cases of this repetitive stress injury cured almost exclusively with conservative treatment. However, severe and chronic cases do exist, and we urge anyone having any of these symptoms to see their doctor sooner, rather than later.
So, the next time you reach for your vibrating phone to return a text, you may just think twice.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment at Multicare Physicians Group, call (712) 276-4325.
Multicare Physicians Group is located at 3930 Stadium Drive in Sioux City.