Doctors See Increase in Pain Through Technology

Mon, 04/12/2010 - 7:59am
Shari Rudavsky, Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Remember the unplugged life? Most people under age 30 can barely recall a world without cell phones, computers and the Internet. Even for many older people, these technologies — with a BlackBerry or iPhone thrown in — are now essential.

But such devices are not necessarily innocuous. As more people use them, healthcare providers report seeing more injuries due to overuse. There's BlackBerry thumb, cell-phone elbow and a host of others that have yet to earn clever names.

Aging eyes may be particularly prone to harm from technology. Computers require us to use our eyes — and in many instances to do so with few breaks for several hours on end.

"It's a pretty common thing. We have patients come in every day with those kinds of problems," said Dr. Christopher Browning, an optometrist with VisionQuest Eyecare in Indianapolis. "All that digital stuff, it's all up in our face, and our eyes are built to work a little farther away."

Spending hours staring at a computer screen keeps the muscles of the eye focused on up-close work. When you switch to distance viewing, such as driving, the muscles can remain locked into that 24-inch distance, Browning said.

Years of staring at a computer screen for her job as an insurance adjuster took a toll on Lori LeSage, 45. And after she got home from work, she would hop on the computer for more screen time.

Eventually, her close-up vision blurred, she tired easily and had headaches. Even after she left her job about 10 months ago to go to school for medical coding, the Greenwood resident had trouble.

In January, Browning prescribed progressive lenses for LeSage, helping her to see not only her computer screen but also her music when she sings in her church choir.

"I had to adjust to them," she said. "It's a little blurry, but it's a lot better than it used to be."

Not every woe caused by technological overuse can be resolved so easily.

Dr. George Hicks, an otologist with the Midwest Ear Institute, sees many patients with the kinds of hearing problems their parents developed decades later in life.

The common culprit: iPods and other MP3 players played too loudly for too long. The player's buds sit in the ear, Hicks notes. And their sound quality is so good that turning up the volume creates no distortion.

"Instead of natural progression of hearing loss, 40- and 50-year-olds are just accelerating the problem. Once that hearing nerve is damaged . . . you can't reverse that," Hicks said.

"We're trying to educate people to not use their listening devices too loud or for too long. Otherwise they're going to end up having to listen to their iPods through their hearing aids."

In some cases, new technologies can spawn new maladies.

Last spring, Dr. Peter Evans, director of the Upper Extremity Center at the Cleveland Clinic, coined the term "cell-phone elbow," a new name for an old diagnosis, cubital tunnel syndrome. In this condition, the ulnar nerve is compressed at the elbow, affecting sensation to half of the ring finger and the entire small finger.

In recent years, Evans has seen more people with this syndrome, which occurs when the elbow is bent more than 90 degrees for long periods of time.

"If you look at the explosion of cell phones, you see people with their hands stuck to their ear," Evans said. "We probably have a lot more elbow flex posturing than we had in the past."

We also have a lot more video-game players. Dr. Greg Merrell, a hand surgeon with the Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center, recently saw a 50-year-old woman with tendonitis in her wrist due to her video-game habit.

It's not unusual for Merrell to see older adults who realize too late that they're no longer 25.

"There's a certain threshold between good function and dysfunction. As you age, the pliability of the tendons . . . and the healing process all contribute to a lowering of that threshold," Merrell said.

"If you're 18, you can probably play 10 hours of a video game and not think twice about it. If you're 50, things that wouldn't have caused a problem do now."

Even younger generations can balk at all the time spent with technology.

Ryan Johnson, 25, works in information technology and is a student in IUPUI's New Media program. So he spends a lot of time on computers for both work and school. He draws the line at texting and cell phones with e-mail.

"I don't do that, because it seems like a mass distraction," the Westfield father of a toddler said. "I get sucked into that world and won't leave it for hours."

People who are not as prudent may find that technology overuse can lead to stress. Some technologies can be addictive, taking the place of personal relationships, said Kimble Richardson, a licensed mental health counselor in the St. Vincent Stress Center.

There are those who just can't take a break from being available 24/7 via phone or e-mail.

On a recent week, Richardson said, he had three patients say they couldn't seem to get away from their jobs.

As they sat in the stress center, he said, they kept checking their phones.


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