A study conducted at the University of Waterloo should serve as a wake-up call for all those who are addicted to their BlackBerrys, iPhones or other handheld mobile devices.
More that 80 per cent of the students, staff and faculty who answered a questionnaire acknowledged feeling some sort of pain during the previous week in their hands, arms, upper back and/or neck. And the greater the reliance on mobile technology, the greater the pain.
"Use of these devices can put you in awkward postures for long periods of time, which could possibly lead to musculoskeletal problems," said Sophia Berolo, a Waterloo graduate student working on her PhD and lead author of the study.
Thumbs often are contorted into unnatural positions trying to navigate a tiny keyboard. Arms may become fatigued holding up the gadget. The neck gets bent out of shape looking down at the device.
As it's a relatively small sample of 140 volunteers, the study has limitations. They were recruited through e-mails, websites and advertisements placed throughout the campus. It's possible that people in pain are the ones most likely to volunteer for such a study. So the results can't be taken as a reflection of the condition in the general public.
"But it gives us some pretty strong clues that something is going on here," said Richard Wells, a senior author of the study and a professor in Waterloo's department of kinesiology.
The study, published in the journal Applied Ergonomics, was financed by the Office Ergonomics Research Committee, an U.S.-based industry group formed by computer and furniture manufacturers.
Dr. Wells calls the findings "preliminary." He said the questionnaire represents one of the first attempts to collect data on the aches and pains believed to be linked to text messaging, Internet browsing and playing games on the ubiquitous devices.
Although more than 80 per cent of those who took part in the study experienced pain, some were hurting a lot more than others.
Almost 48 per cent reported moderate or severe pain (4 to 10 on a 10-point pain scale) in at least a thumb, neck or shoulders. And 15 per cent reported severe pain (7 to 10 on the pain scale) in at least one of those body parts.
"That kind of pain would certainly affect their ability to function," Dr. Wells said.
More time spent on these devices increases the risk. People who operated one of these gadgets for more than 2.37 hours a day are 3.5 times more likely to experience moderate or severe pain in their thumbs than those who use them less.
Dr. Wells hopes the findings will encourage other experts to look for ways to minimize potential injuries that could, if left unchecked, becoming disabling. For instance, propping hands on a desk or another object may reduce neck and arm strain during texting. But such tactics may not be enough to eliminate all problems.
"Anything you can do to cut down the amount of time you spend using one of these devices would be helpful," Dr. Wells said.