Touch screen, app addiction, and Angry Birds elbow

If you play too many games on your smartphone or tablet touch screens, will you get Angry Birds elbow?

Back in 2006, I wrote about an ailment called BlackBerry Thumb. This stress-related injury, caused by repetitive thumb movements from the over-use of PDAs or smartphone, sparked the Hyatt hotel chain to offer "BlackBerry Balm" hand massages for business travelers at most of its North American spas.

Not surprisingly, the use of smartphones has increased a great deal since then, especially with the popularity of touch screens and free entertaining mobile apps. In fact, I witnessed the transition from dumb phone to smartphone when my partner in crime, Krista, decided to upgrade her LG EnV3 (which coincidentally has the tag line "Make Your Thumbs Happy") to the Samsung Stratosphere (a 4G Android device that has an outer touch screen and a QWERTY slider keyboard).

The physical keyboard was an important part of the smartphone selection process, since -- like quite a few folks, especially those who text regularly -- Krista had apprehension about making the complete switch over to a touch screen. However, it didn't take long before she was exclusively using the touch screen for all of her phone needs, including making calls, sending texts, and playing games.

In fact, the free games available from Google Play became her regular pastime, a de-stressor from work obligations and other life responsibilities. However, it didn't take long before she started experiencing pain in her forearm and elbow -- a repetitive motion injury -- to the point where it hurt even when she wasn't on her phone.

One weekend, she asked her sister-in-law, Barb, why she was experiencing so much pain. Barb is an Occupational Therapist (OT) and certified hand therapist. After asking a few questions and manipulating her arm a bit, Barb said that Krista was suffering from tennis elbow. The closest thing to tennis that Krista plays is a ping pong app -- but seriously, she's much more addicted to SCRABBLE Free, Words with Friends Free, Draw Something Free, Solitaire, and Angry Birds. As such, this particular affliction should more appropriately be called Angry Birds elbow.

After several weeks of increasing pain, to the point where it was affecting her job, Krista made an appointment with her physician, Dr. Lach. After a brief exam and consultation, he also said that she was suffering from lateral epicondilitis, which is the fancy medical term for tennis elbow.

According to Dr. Lach, there are several ways to treat epicondilitis, including rest, ice, stretching exercises, forearm/wrist braces, and anti-inflammatory medication. He said that, with treatment, it could take up to three weeks to get rid of the pain.

I asked Dr. Lach if he's seen an increase of tennis elbow with the rise of smartphone use, and more recently with tablet popularity. It seems like that would make perfect sense, right? Well, Dr. Lach said that he's seen more carpal tunnel because of technology, but not necessarily epicondilitis.

Last week, I had a chance to talk to Barb again about her experience as an OT, and I asked her if she's seen more hand, wrist, elbow, and arm pain due to smartphone and tablet use. She said that she's seeing more tennis elbow patients than ever before, and a lot of problems that technology brings about are due to postural changes -- people are increasingly hunched over, which inevitably leads to neck, hand, and arm pain.

How do you avoid Angry Birds elbow? Barb recommended yoga, core strengthening (as well as the strengthening of elbows and shoulders), and POSTURE, POSTURE, POSTURE. Of course, if you have a repetitive motion injury, like you might get from frequently swiping a touch screen, the absolute best thing you can do is to stop and give your body a chance to heal.

Have you experienced pain from prolonged use of your touch screen device? Please share your experience in the discussion thread below.