The medical term for this increasingly common condition is de Quervain’s tendonitis, but the layman’s term much more accurately describes what this painful ailment is all about.
The irritation and inflammation associated with this condition, which is actually a repetitive stress injury, is typically caused by repeated tendon friction resulting from excessive use of the thumb. Extended periods of static work, such as is necessary for those who rely heavily on text messaging as a form of communication, and requires muscular effort without movement taking place. Instead of the circulation created from movement, static work contracts muscles, preventing blood from reaching tissues to nourish cells and carry away waste products. Over time, this lack of circulation causes muscle tissue to lose its ability to repair micro traumas.
Symptoms include radial pain or soreness upon thumb or wrist movement from the thumb to the forearm, pain when a fist is made, swelling and tenderness at the base of the thumb and the radial side of the wrist, feeling or hearing squeaking as the thumb’s tendon slides through its sheath, numbness in the back of the thumb and index finger, caused by the swollen tendon rubbing on a nerve, a fluid-filled cyst in the same region as the swelling and pain, and difficulty moving the thumb and wrist during activities involving grasping or pinching.
In reference to Blackberry thumb, Alan Hedge, the director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University, says "Eventually you get to the point where you won't be able to grip anything. 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."
A massage therapist is very likely to approach treatment of your Blackberry thumb from several angles:
- Resting the thumb. This allows for micro-trauma healing and inflammation recovery. Complete rest should last no longer than two to three days, though, because range of motion and muscle strength must be maintained.
- Thermal Application, which involves applying ice packs to reduce swelling and inflammation or gentle heat to increase circulation.
- Massage. Most effective for de Quervain’s are techniques found in sports massage, Swedish massage, shiatsu and neuromuscular therapy. Massage increases the circulation that stagnates in static injuries, increases the thumb and wrist’s range of motion and can breakdown scar tissue contributing to pain and numbness.
- Taking frequent breaks from repetitive tasks.
- Regularly engaging in stretching and strengthening exercises for the wrists and hands.
- Adopting an ergonomic work environment.
- Practicing proper wrist alignment and posture during all daily tasks.
- Avoiding repeated keystrokes with only one thumb (practice being ambidextrous).
While computers are infamous for their propensity towards carpal tunnel syndrome, the miniaturization of products has coined the terms ‘Blackberry thumb’, ‘nintendonitis’ and ‘iPod finger’. As of yet, there are no detailed statistics on how many people are suffering from this condition but doctors are reporting seeing a significant increase in these repetitive stress injuries. The American Society of Hand Therapists has issued a consumer alert, warning users of small gadgets that heavy thumb use can lead to swelling of the sheath around the tendons in the thumb.
Massage therapists are becoming increasingly more familiar with the terminology, symptoms, causes, treatments and prevention of this repetitive motion injury, and they’re ready for the onslaught of sufferers.
Devon Wilkins, R.M.T., Certified Reflexologist