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Video Game Victims

Too much play time can cause hand injuries, eye strain, experts say

FRIDAY, May 6, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Video gaming is more popular than ever -- an estimated eight games were sold every second in 2004, according to industry experts.

But with that increased interest in flashy graphics and button-mashing comes increased health concerns.

Too much gaming can cause repetitive-motion injuries in the hands and arms, doctors say, as well as eye strain.

There are even a few non-tech terms referring to the swollen muscles and tendons that come from too much game playing: "Nintendo Thumb" or "Nintendenitis."

But, there are steps gamers can take to prevent injury and still enjoy themselves.

"It is as important for children to take the proper precautions in playing video games as it is for them to warm up and safeguard against injury before a soccer game," said William W. Walsh, president of the American Society of Hand Therapists. "The repetitive movements associated with playing video games can lead to future ailments, given excessive hours of play time."

More than $7.3 billion in video games were sold in 2004, according to data compiled by the Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group. One of the best-selling titles of the year, Halo 2 for the XBox, raked in $125 million during its first day of sales, more than any movie has ever grossed on its opening day.

That much interest inevitably means some people will enjoy too much of a good thing, said Stacey Doyon, vice president of the American Society of Hand Therapists. While there are no statistics available, Doyon said she often sees cases of muscle strain that are at least partially caused by video gaming.

"A co-worker of mine says her son complains about his hands hurting after playing, but he won't stop," Doyon said. "And I have an adult patient who didn't want to admit that his game playing might be causing his problems with sore hands and arms."

The games in question include video game consoles that hook up to a television, with players using hand-held controllers to guide the on-screen action. The Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube comprise the current generation of game consoles.

Repetitive-motion injury and eyestrain also can develop from the use of hand-held game systems like the newly released PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS. In those systems, the screen is located on the controller and no television is necessary.

These video games involve intense gripping, repetitive punching motions on small buttons and sharp wrist movements while guiding joysticks, Walsh said.

Too much video game playing can lead to such ailments as "Nintendo Thumb," a repetitive stress injury that causes swelling at the base of the thumb. Continued stress on tendons, nerves and ligaments in children's hands and arms can lead to long-term ailments such as lateral epicondylitis, also known as "tennis elbow;" tendonitis; bursitis; and carpal tunnel syndrome.

To protect against injury, Doyon suggests that gamers take frequent breaks, every half hour to an hour. During those breaks, they should stretch their hands and bodies, she said.

"If you've been clenched on a game controller, you want to get your fingers stretched back, your wrists stretched back," Doyon said. Recommended stretches, which should be held for 10 seconds and repeated eight times, include:

  • Folding your hands together and turning your palms away from your body as you extend your arms forward.
  • Folding your hands together and turning your palms away from your body, but this time extending your arms overhead.
  • Placing your hand just above the back of the elbow and gently pulling your elbow across your chest toward the opposite shoulder.
  • Raising one arm overhead and bending the elbow, then placing the opposite hand on the bent elbow and gently pushing the elbow back further.
  • Extending an arm in front of you, making sure the elbow is completely straight. Then, with your palm down, take the opposite hand and bend the hand down toward the floor. Then turn the palm up, and stretch the hand up toward your body.
  • Opening up your hands and spreading the fingers are far as possible.

Game fans should also practice good posture while playing, Doyon said, sitting in a chair that provides solid back support and lets them comfortably rest their feet on the floor.

People using hand-held systems should put pillows in their laps and rest their arms on the pillows. This will support the arms and help keep the head in a more upright position, decreasing neck strain.

Staring at television or computer screens for too long also can cause eyestrain among gamers, but there are ways to prevent that as well.

Eye strain can involve eye irritation, dry eyes, headaches, pain in the eyes or surrounding facial muscles, excessive blinking or squinting, difficulty focusing and increased sensitivity to light.

As with hand injuries, the best way to avoid eye strain is to take frequent breaks.

Gamers also should sit directly facing the screen when playing, rather than at an angle to the television, said Dr. Andrea Thau, an associate clinical professor of the State University of New York College of Optometry. "That way, both eyes are being stimulated equally," she said.

If playing in front of a TV set, gamers should sit 6 feet to 10 feet from the screen. They also should make sure there is not excessive glare on the screen.

Thau added that gamers also should periodically look at other objects in the room, to help prevent eyestrain by allowing the eye to focus at different distances.

"The bottom line is with any visual task, you have to have a variety of visual distances," she said. "Every 15 or 20 minutes, look away from the screen at something farther away."

More information

For more on preventing eye strain, visit Oklahoma State University.

SOURCES: Stacey Doyon, vice president, American Society of Hand Therapists; Andrea Thau, associate clinical professor, State University of New York College of Optometry
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