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For Some, Thumb Pain Is BlackBerry's Stain

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page A01

Sandy Boyd's BlackBerry had become her passion. Now it has also become a source of pain.

About three months ago, the National Association of Manufacturers vice president noticed that, as she started to type, the area between her thumb and wrist would begin to throb.

White House staff members who accompanied President Bush to a speaking engagement in Lancaster, Pa., last week -- from left, Karl Rove, Joe Hagin and Stephen Hadley -- check information on their BlackBerrys. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

Orthopedists say they are seeing an increasing number of patients with similar symptoms, a condition known as "overuse syndrome" or "BlackBerry thumb." In some patients, the disability has become severe.

Bette R. Keltner, dean of the Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, has been forced to put her BlackBerry down. After two years of constant use, her hands were in so much pain, she had to stop typing. She remembers the trigger point: It was a 10-hour conference one Saturday where she answered about 150 e-mails. "Days later, I was in excruciating pain," she said.

The American Society of Hand Therapists issued a consumer alert in January saying that handheld electronics are causing an increasing amount of carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. With that warning, the society included directions on how to properly hold the devices, urging users to take breaks and, if possible, place pillows in their laps so their wrists are in a more upright position.

But at airports and hearing rooms and other places where handheld users while away pauses by thumbing their keyboards, there are no pillows in evidence and very few breaks from the tap-tap-click of e-mailing.

"You become so accustomed to the convenience. This is a kind of tool where you can get five things done while waiting for another meeting to happen," said Keltner.

Keltner now has tendinitis and has spent months in various therapies, including acupuncture, acupressure and a magnetic bracelet. After she realized the BlackBerry had caused her tendinitis, she still tried to use it -- but less often. Shorter notes, more breaks between e-mails. But that brought no relief. She recovered after 12 weeks of therapy. But three months later, even though she has quit messaging, she said her tendinitis is back.

BlackBerry subscribers now total 2.51 million, more than double the 1.07 million subscribers a year ago. Research in Motion Ltd., the maker of the BlackBerry, declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the disability issue. Some other handheld devices, such as PalmOne Inc.'s Treo and T-Mobile Inc.'s Sidekick phones, use similar thumb-operated keyboards. The small keyboards are tough on hands and wrists, according to Paige Kurtz of the American Society of Hand Therapists.

The pains associated with BlackBerrys and other handhelds used to be common among video game players, but Stuart Hirsch, clinical assistant professor of orthopedics at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Paterson, N.J., believes teens who are frequent gamers are a little more immune. Also, though many handheld game devices also use thumb-operated controls, they typically don't require as much range of motion as keyboards spanning the entire alphabet as well as punctuation marks.

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