Bummed by BlackBerry Thumb?

My right thumb has been throbbing lately. It’s quite painful. Could this be from text messaging on my BlackBerry?

– November 10, 2006

You may indeed have "BlackBerry thumb," the latest repetitive stress injury to attract attention in the medical profession. In August of 2006, the American Physical Therapy Association warned that overuse of personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as BlackBerries can lead to pain, numbness, swelling and tendonitis in the thumbs and joints of the hand, an announcement that got a lot of press. "BlackBerry thumb" is a catchy name for what could be a painful condition – but I’m not sure that it is as widespread as the news coverage or Internet buzz would suggest. I came across a BBC article from London quoting a professor of orthopedic surgery as saying that prolonged use of PDAs could cause wear and tear on the thumb, but that, so far, he hadn’t heard of any actual cases.

The thumb isn’t as dexterous as the fingers – think of the role that it plays when you’re typing on a full-size keyboard. Your fingers are flying, but all the thumbs do is hit the spacebar. Using your thumb to type out messages on PDAs requires it to move in unusual ways, thus exposing it to the kind of repetitive stress that can lead to inflammation and injury.

If you think use of your PDA is causing the pain in your thumb, the cure is simple: give it a rest. You can try the thumb splints and gloves advertised as treatments for this condition, but they are not as good as putting the PDA aside for a while. If rest doesn’t help, see your physician. You might have developed tendonitis. Conventional medicine treats this inflammatory condition with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or cortisone shots. Alternatively, you could try these approaches:

  • DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide): Available in health food stores, this chemical penetrates the skin and promotes healing. Paint a 70 percent solution on the sore area with cotton and let it dry. Try it three times a day for three days. If there is no improvement, stop using it. If the pain lessens, apply DMSO twice a day for three more days, then once a day for a final three days.
  • Acupuncture: Look for a practitioner with experience in treating tendonitis.
  • A mixture of natural anti-inflammatory herbs, including ginger and turmeric, follow dosage directions on the product.
  • Homeopathic remedies: Consult a qualified homeopathic practitioner. Ruta or Rhus Tox at a potency of 6c to 30c is the treatment most often recommended. You might also try applying Traumeel or Topricin creams, available in health food stores.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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