Imagine that you can no longer grasp a can of soda without your wrist feeling like it wants to explode. That, my friend, is what that innocent-looking game console can do to you. I’m not speaking about this as a medical expert, or as a concerned parent hoping to sway kids from playing video games, but as a witness to the pain and suffering that extreme gaming can cause to the human body.
My gaming addiction actually started when I was about 13 – caused by the original Ultima series produced by Origin Systems. After seeking out magic runes and battling cyclops well into the night, I had officially caught the gaming bug. It was an affliction that stuck with me through the rest of high school, into college, and even into my early marriage and parenting years. I eased off of gaming a little in college, but it wasn’t until after our children had entered their toddler years and there was a little more free time, that I re-entered the gaming action in full-force once again. That time, it was Medal of Honor Online.
The combination of staying up all night playing Medal of Honor, working at a desk all day as an automation engineer, and then writing online in the evenings eventually took its toll. I started feeling a strange tingling in the wrist, combined with a numb feeling up the side of my thumb. This eventually evolved into a terrible pain whenever I bent my wrist or my thumb at a certain angle or squeezed my hand. I was completely at a loss as to what was causing it, until one night while gaming, I realized that I was resting my wrist flat on the desk, with my hand tilted at an odd upward angle on top of the mouse. It was then that it dawned on me – I officially had Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.
A Gaming Injury You Don’t Want – Carpal Tunnel
A visit to the Doctor confirmed my fear. I had aggravated the major nerve that passes over the carpal bones in my wrist. The Doctor at least gave me some good news – it wasn’t a syndrome unless the condition returned again after recovery, but the bad news was that recovery would require immobilizing my thumb for several weeks, potentially months. My gaming days were over.
When you make a living on the computer, the prospect of having your mouse-hand immobilized and rendered incapable of using a mouse is a scary thing. Let’s just say I learned to use the mouse with my left hand for a while.
Thankfully, when it comes to ergonomic issues and repetitive use injuries that could potentially be related to your on-the-job responsibilities, employers are usually pretty good about helping you correct your workstation so that the injury doesn’t happen again. My employer gave me a full ergonomic assessment, and the ideas I learned from that assessment, I was able to apply at home on my gaming workstation.
This particular injury – aggravating the carpal tunnel and associated nerves – is the first I want to focus on, because it’s the most common injury among gamers. It goes by many names – Gamer’s Thumb, Nintendonitis, Nintendo Thumb, and even WASD Wrist (referring to the W-A-S-D movement keyboard keys used in first-person shooters).
The cause of the aggravation can be from any number of repetitive actions including:
1. Constantly pressing the “fire” button on the game controller with your thumb. After hours of over-use, you’ll experience some swelling at the base of your thumb, and this swelling can actually pinch the nerves in your wrist.
2. Holding your hand at an odd angle over the keyboard to press the movement keys while playing a first-person shooter or other, similar game. Again, this causes swelling in the wrist that can pinch nerves.
3. Using a standard PC mouse during extended game play that requires repetitive firing with the index finger while moving the mouse quickly around with the thumb. The twisted position of your wrist over a standard mouse can accelerate the aggravation, swelling and pinched nerves in the wrist.
Using an ergonomic mouse can help significantly when it comes to it causing the wrist issues, but it does little to help with keyboard or game controller issues.
However, if you look at what the ergo-mouse does to relieve stress on the carpal tunnel, you can apply the same concepts to other gaming behaviors that cause the same symptoms. The mouse forces you to keep your hand in the natural “prone” position, rather than twisting your forearm to flatten your wrist, which stretches the nerves and tendons in the carpal tunnel. This is basically what you need to do in other situations as well. You could either try to hold the game console controller in a way that keeps your wrists straight, or you could purchase a specialty controller for your console. You can even buy specialty controllers for your Android!
Even though you use the latest and greatest ergonomics, there’s nothing that replaces good, old fashioned stretching. The best way to avoid repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel is just to pause the game, get up and walk away, and make sure to do plenty of carpal tunnel prevention stretches often. It’s just like any other athletic event where a part of the body is overtaxed – stretching is absolutely critical to avoid injury.
Eye Strain – It Can Happen to You
I’m convinced that one side-effect of staring at a screen for nearly 9-15 hours a day since I was 9 years old is that I ended up needing glasses at the age of 35. It actually might have started earlier, as I had been having the symptoms of it for years – sore and burning eyes, headache, sensitivity to light and even a sore neck. I dealt with the symptoms until the headaches just got too bad.
My eyes were nearly 20-20, however using his exotic-looking machine, the doctor determined that one eye was just a smidgen off. He said he wouldn’t even recommend glasses for most people with such a small prescription, but since my screen-use is in excess of a normal person, he prescribed me a pair of “computer” glasses.
Even if you don’t have an underlying eye problem that can be made worse by prolonged staring at a computer or gaming screen, you can still suffer from eye strain from excessive gaming unless you follow these eye strain prevention tips offered by the Mayo Clinic:
1. Keep the room softly lit so that there isn’t such a direct contrast between the screen and the surroundings.
2. Keep the screen 20-40 inches (50-100 cm) from your eyes (I used to sit very, very close to the monitor when I was a kid).
3. Keep the top of your screen at eye level so that you look slightly down at the screen – never have the screen positioned so you have to look up.
4. Reduce bright overhead lighting (like fluorescent or sunlight) that can cause bad glare on the screen.
5. Turn down brightness and contrast on the screen to a level that’s comfortable for your eyes.
6. Keep the screen clean of dust and smudges, or you could have contrast and glare problems.
7. Take a break often. Screen use causes you to blink less, which can lead to dry-eye. Breaks can help alleviate this problem.
Posture – Sit Up!
There are two really common gaming positions for avid gamers. There’s the “couch slouch”, where the gamer is just chilling with feet up on the coffee table and slouched back into the couch. Then, there’s the “full-on” position – usually in the heat of an FPS battle – that involves leaning forward, elbows on knees, head tilted forward, and all attention and focused on the screen.
So what’s the problem? Everything! There’s extra pressure on the elbows (not to mention the legs), the wrists are twisted and thumbs extended unnaturally, and worst of all that 10 pound head of yours is now extended forward – placing the strain of supporting it directly into your spine right between your shoulder blades. This is exactly the posture that leads to the other common gaming pain complaints – sore shoulders and elbows, sore thumb, and back pain.
If you’re going to spend so many hours gaming, ditch the couch and opt for an ergonomically correct gaming chair that supports you in all the right places. And, by all means, sit up straight and keep that 10 pound bowling ball of a head balanced squarely on top of your shoulders – that alone will alleviate many of those aches and pains.
We’ve published an infographic that will help you see all of the potential dangers of bad posture.
You wouldn’t think that sports injuries would make up one of the more common gaming injuries, but thanks to the advent of the Wii, gamers now have to deal with many of the same injuries that athletes do, and sometimes even more. Those innocent-looking Wii Nunchucks turned out to be not so innocent after all.
It didn’t take long after the Wii came out for reports of various injuries to roll in. One Osteopath in the UK told Sky News that he had seen 20 patients with back strain just a few days following Christmas that year. The story even prompted a Wii spokesman to issue tips to gamers on how to avoid injuries while playing the Wii. Those tips included avoiding “excessive and forceful actions”, always wearing the wrist strap, and making sure people and objects are far enough away from you.
It doesn’t take very long surfing the Internet to hear stories from other gamers about Nunchucks flying out of their hands and striking people that are nearby, a flailing arm smacking a gaming partner in the head, or the controller going airborne and breaking something made of glass. Yes, those wrist straps were not made just so you don’t drop the thing on the floor.
Pulled Muscles and Sprains
Athletes that run marathons even know that not stretching before any rigorous physical activity will lead to pulled muscles, or even worse, injuries like a sprained ankle. Stretching loosens up the muscles and prepares your body for the stress that is to come – even for just a 30 minute run. But once the Wii and other motion-sensor gaming consoles came out, you’ve got a whole population of former couch potatoes suddenly jumping up and trying to do 1-2 hours of activities like tennis, boxing and bowling without giving a second thought to stretching first. Afterwards, there’s all sorts of confusion about all the terrible muscle pains and soreness.