Thumbs down: MSK symptoms and hand-held devices

If you use a hand-held device such as a BlackBerry or an iPod, do you experience hand or neck pain? If you answered, “yes,” you’re likely not alone.

Published: February 15, 2011

About 85 per cent of people who took part in a small study reported pain in at least one body part, particularly in the hand, neck and shoulder areas.

This result suggests that hand-held devices may contribute to musculoskeletal symptoms or disorders (MSDs), says Institute for Work & Health Scientific Director Dr. Benjamin Amick, who co-authored the study along with Dr. Richard Wells, the project’s principal investigator, and Sophia Berolo, both of the University of Waterloo. The study’s results are published in Applied Ergonomics 2010 (doi:10.1016/j.apergo.2010.08.010).

MSDs – pain in the muscles, tendons and other soft tissues – account for more than 40 per cent of all lost-time compensation claims in Ontario. Preventing these conditions can help workplaces to reduce costs and improve productivity.

More than four hours of daily use

Participants in the study completed a questionnaire containing questions about how much time they used a hand-held device each day and any symptoms of pain in the hands, arms, shoulders, upper back and neck. A total of 137 participants – recruited from a university setting – reported using a hand-held device, spending an average of more than four-and-a-half hours every day texting, scheduling, browsing the internet, making phone calls and gaming. The total time spent using a hand-held device on a typical day was “significantly associated with moderate and severe pain in the base of the right thumb, the shoulders and the neck,” the study notes.

The issue stems from the small size of these devices, says Amick. Users tend to hold them in their fingers and press the tiny keys with their thumbs.

Although these findings are preliminary, Amick and Wells hope to further explore this major issue. We are concerned about the limited number of well-designed studies available, they note. Our next step is to look at how hand-held tablets may contribute to musculoskeletal symptoms.