Spa Offers Relief for 'BlackBerry Thumb'

Dec. 22, 2005 — -- As spa director of the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz., Kyra Johnson was very familiar with the ravages of "BlackBerry thumb."

"If you look around at any office or train station or airport," she said, "you see people hunched over PDA equipment and using their hands in ways that the hand wasn't really meant to be used."

The term "BlackBerry thumb" -- named after the ubiquitous hand-held e-mail and phone gadget - has become shorthand for the pain and discomfort that can accompany overuse.

In response to the problem, Johnson's spa developed a new treatment: the "BlackBerry Balm Hand Massage."

Though it might sound silly to some, many orthopedists and ergonomic experts will tell you BlackBerry thumb is very real and potentially very painful.

Caring for Overworked Digits

No one knows precisely how big of a problem the condition is -- there haven't been any studies.

But experts do know that gadgets like PDAs, video game controllers and smart phones like the BlackBerry can be the cause.

That may be why the BlackBerry Balm hand massage has been added to the spa menu at every Hyatt spa in North America.

"It is an intense hand and arm massage that uses a host of acupressure and massage techniques to alleviate some of the discomfort and tension associated with rigorous 'texting' and typing on PDA equipment," Johnson said.

A typical massage may feel good, but it typically focuses on the torso, neck and legs -- not the arms and hands.

"In a typical 60-minute massage, 90 percent of the time your hands and arms are done for maybe a couple of minutes," Johnson said. "You don't know how much tension is in your arms and your hands until you actually get them worked on."

The massage even includes a bottle of Hyatt's own "BlackBerry Balm," which text-happy typists can take on the road to soothe their aching digits.

Is This For Real?

What's called BlackBerry thumb today was dubbed "Nintendoitis" in the '80s when button-smashing kids complained of pain after hours of playing video games.

But the condition is actually called "deQuervain's tendonitis" and is a result of irritation of the tendons along the thumb side of the wrist, said Alan Hedge, the director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University. And it can be severe.

"Eventually you get to the point where you won't be able to grip anything," explained Hedge. "Your ability to grip an object depends very much on the thumb -- the thumb is the most powerful of the digits, so when movement of the thumb becomes painful you can't hold on to things."

Hedge said deQuervain's was first attributed to washer women who would wash and then ring out clothes day in and day out more than 100 years ago. Back then they called it "washer woman's thumb."

Even without a plethora of high-tech gizmos to tap away on, these women developed the same symptoms many hand-held junkies have over a century later.

"If you think of holding the BlackBerry in your hand and you press the key down you then have to pull the thumb back up to move it to the next key and that's the painful part," he explained. "Movement of the thumb out and away from the hand becomes quite painful."

Some have attributed the malady to a condition called "trigger thumb" or "trigger finger" -- where the finger or thumb straightens with a snap like a trigger being pulled and released.

It's possible users of the device are experiencing both conditions, but that the term BlackBerry thumb generally refers to deQuarvain's, Hedge said.

Massage as Treatment

Massages like the one offered by Hyatt are supposed to be part of a more thorough treatment program, although Hedge said that if you are experiencing severe pain, you should contact a physician.

But if it feels good, he said to give it a shot.

"It's not going to be harmful, so why not?" Hedge said. "Providing they also ice it afterward, it should be pretty good."

Johnson said the massage is not meant to replace any kind of medical treatment and that anyone suffering from a malady like carpal tunnel syndrome should see a doctor, not a masseuse.

"It's really preventative," she said. "The whole world of wellness is preventative."

But she also pointed out that little research has been done on the health benefits of massages, so on top of feeling good, it may be very good for you, too.

For Relief, Expert Says Use Your Head

Although no one from Research In Motion -- the makers of BlackBerry -- returned calls requesting an interview, they have responded to the problem.

"In some of their [RIM's] BlackBerrys, they have a reduced keyboard that's more like the keyboard on a cell phone," Hedge said. "The software on the device anticipates the word that you're typing and the idea is that it will allow you to make fewer keystrokes. And that will reduce the load on the thumb."

In addition, Hedge said that instead of being forced to tap the tiny keys of hand-held keyboards, some manufacturers have developed fold-out versions that aren't too bulky and don't pose the same risks.

But in addition to taking advantage of ergonomically friendly keyboards, fancy massages and magical balms, gadget users might also try applying some common sense.

"You've got to give the thumb a break," he said. "The problem with BlackBerry is that if you overuse the thumb it's going to get painful -- if you try to type long e-mails or anything."

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