Video gamers risk more than virtual injury when they play for prolonged periods — the extended use of vibrating game controls could put them at risk for the same injury experienced by operators of power tools like jackhammers.
A letter published in this week's British Medical Journal describes the case of a 15-year-old British boy who developed what is known as hand-arm vibration syndrome, or HAVS, from the vibration feature on his video game control. Many newer hand held game controls have this feature, which vibrates or "rumbles" in concert with events on the screen, creating a more realistic effect.
Prior to the report, HAVS was recognized only as an occupational hazard more commonly seen in people exposed to excessive levels of vibration from operating hand held power tools such as chain saws or jackhammers.
The syndrome results from the destruction of the small vessels that supply blood to the hand. Symptoms include poor circulation, numbness, and increased sensitivity to heat and cold.
The researchers state that the boy in the current report played video games for up to seven hours a day. While they acknowledge that this exceeds the manufacturer's recommendations, they also note that it is not an unusual occurrence.
According to the Minneapolis, Minn., based National Institute on Media and the Family, a non-profit organization conducting ongoing research on the effects of the electronic media on children, 84 percent of teens play electronic games and the average teen plays for one hour at a sitting. The average for boys alone nears 1 1/2 hours.
"I don't know that there is a clear algorithm for what safe limits of usage are," says Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Boston, Mass., who has studied the effects of media on child and adolescent health and behavior. "I haven't seen anything like that and I would bet that no one has done the research."
The authors of the current paper would like to see the game systems come with warnings stating that developing HAVS is a risk associated with play. Other doctors are concerned about the strength of the vibrations to begin with.
"I think that probably the more reasonable response to this... on a societal level, is to say calm down the vibrations," adds Rich. "The vibrations are obviously too intense to cause this kind of damage regardless of the number of hours played."
Experts say that this unusual side-effect of extensive game play sounds plausible.
"[The report] sounds real. I haven't played these games, but I've felt the vibrations and they're pretty intense," says Rich. "I wasn't aware that the intensity of the vibration was such that it would cause [HAVS], but it makes reasonable sense."
While the authors of the report state that this is the first time that video game-related HAVS has been documented, there have been reports of other incidents associated with playing video games either on the computer or other game systems.
"Mechanical damage to fingers or the palm [have been reported] and then there's sort of a tendonitis, like a tennis elbow, that people have described," says Rich. This video game associated tendonitits has been described by some as "Nintendonitis."
Over-development of the arm, back and shoulder muscles on one side of the body at the expense of the other have also been noted. And mechanical injuries are not the only problem.
"There have been reports in the literature of kids having seizures from playing video games," says Dr. Miriam Bar-on, professor of pediatrics at Loyola University in Chicago and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education. "Video game epilepsy is almost becoming a diagnosis unto its own."
Experts are also concerned that the full physical consequences of video game playing have not yet been seen.
"I think as kids are spending considerable amounts of time playing these games that we are going to see a lot of the injury or illness that people have seen in industry with a lot of the different types of repetitive use syndrome," adds Bar-on. "I am just waiting for the first case report of the development of carpal tunnel syndrome from using one of these video game platforms. I think it's just a matter of time."