Despite what many people may presume, gaming can lead to injury. Playing videogames requires a lot of repetitive motions of the fingers, thumbs, wrists and forearms. A condition known as gamer’s thumb (or De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis) is one of the most common. Recently, many of us have been spending more time at home and spending more time playing videogames. While this can be a good thing, too much can be bad without proper preventative actions. This article will explain what exactly gamer’s thumb is, why the hand pain can be serious, what other similar injuries there are and what treatment works to prevent and help it.
What is Gamer’s Thumb?
Essentially this condition relates to the inflammation of the tendons in your thumb. The repetitive movement of an analogue stick, use of keyboards or mouse buttons can lead to this issue. While gaming, your thumb will be moving constantly. This can be worse for intense and/ or highly competitive games which require rapid and precise movement.
The general term for this sort of pain is Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and can be caused by a variety of activities, not just gaming. Gamer’s thumb is just used in relation to hand and thumb pain from playing games. Scrolling through social media and texting on a smartphone is another major cause of RSI. However, long gaming sessions in conjunction with smartphone use before, during or after can exacerbate the issue.
The symptoms are as follows:
- Pain or aching at the base of the thumb while playing and after.
- Swelling where the pain occurs.
- Clicking or catching sensation when moving the thumb.
- Wrist pain that extends up the forearm.
- Weakness in grip strength of the thumb.
Other Similar Injuries
Labelling this condition as gamer’s thumb can be misleading. It implies that only people who play an excessive amount of videogames can end up damaging the tendons in their hands. Whereas in reality, various day-to-day activities and hobbies can take their toll on your hands. There are other similar types of injuries which can occur from such activities with gaming being just one possible cause.
Probably the most well known is carpal tunnel syndrome. This involves numbness, tingling and weakness in the hand and arm. This can especially be a problem for people who spend a lot of their time using a mouse and keyboard, therefore PC gamers are more at risk. The repetitive flexing of the wrist creates harmful pressure on the median nerve.
Likewise, the injury known as trigger finger is also caused by the inflammation of tendons in the hand. It can result in an inability to move your fingers without pain.
Tennis elbow is an injury involving the elbow and forearm. As with gamer’s thumb, this condition has become associated with a single hobby but can be caused by various activities. It is caused by repetitive movement of the muscles of the forearm near the elbow. Controller users are unlikely to suffer from this, but people who use a mouse and make large sweeping movements can be susceptible to tennis elbow. Also, certain virtual reality games, such as Beat Saber, may result in the overuse of these muscles.
Poor posture can lead to prolonged back pain. By staying seated for too long or by sitting in a poor position can result in pain in various areas of the back. Nerves can become trapped and cause high amounts of pain.
By applying the best treatment for gamer’s thumb and these injuries, you can ensure that you can play games without worrying about any sort of pain.
Why it is Serious
Recently, Call of Duty Pro player ZooMaa (Thomas Paparatto) announced that he would be retiring because of a thumb/ wrist injury. Due to the requirements for professional gamers to practice all-day-everyday and then to compete at the highest level, it appears that the issue of gamer’s thumb, or a similar injury, took its toll. This isn’t the first case of a pro gamer having to retire due to injury and it will likely not be the last.
This is why gaming-related injuries need to be taken more seriously by the wider public and amongst e-sports circles. Pros like ZooMaa will no longer be able to do the things that they love and it potentially puts their livelihood in jeopardy. The dangers of ligament damage need to be addressed and understood by everyone who plays videogames for a significant amount of time.
Not only can it prevent people from enjoying their favourite past-times but it can lead to permanent damage. Without proper treatment for gamer’s thumb, the hand pain can lead to a permanent loss of grip strength and a reduced range of movement. Thereby not only limiting your ability to play games but can also affect you in various aspects of life. If the condition gets very bad the only treatment may be steroids or even surgery. Not only can this be stressful and painful, but in countries without free healthcare, it can be very expensive.
There are various treatments that can help prevent and treat gamer’s thumb. Here I will detail what you can do, ranging from easiest to most severe. However, this is by no means equal to professional advice from a doctor, so if you are seriously struggling with hand pain while gaming the best thing to do is seek qualified help.
The simplest, but perhaps actually the hardest, is to not play games for as long. It can be easy, especially during recent lockdowns where we have to stay at home, to play for upwards of 6 or 7 hours every day. Taking the occasional day off to focus on other things or by limiting yourself to around 2 to 4 hours a day (honestly, the less the better) can give your hands time to recover. Taking breaks during your game sessions is also important. Try to take a 10-minute break for every hour of playing. This is also good for your eye health and other aspects of our wellbeing.
To quickly reduce pain, applying heat and ice can help. You can use hot/cold packs or gels, or use ice cubes wrapped in cloth, or simply hot and cold water. The cold will reduce the swelling and dull the pain, while the heat will improve circulation. Alternate between the two for a couple of minutes each to assist recovery.
Another solution is to completely immobilise the thumb and hand when you’re not playing. Using a brace or splint can hold your thumb in-place. This is less convenient as it restricts what you can do for the rest of the day but it can be a sure-fire way to prevent any use of the damaged tendons for an extended period of time.
Stretches and Exercise
There are a lot of simple stretches that can be done daily before playing and during. You can target specific areas which are causing you the most pain; be it your thumbs, fingers, wrist or forearm. There are many videos such as the one below on YouTube which can teach you some of the stretches to help with hand pain and gamer’s thumb.
Along the same lines as stretching is posture. Posture is extremely important not only for back pain but it also involves the position of your arms and wrist. Your position in your chair is crucial. Ensure to keep your chest up, shoulders back and with your head facing straight forwards with the middle of your screen at eye-level. Your arms should be parallel to the ground with your wrists straight. Finally, your feet need to be flat on the floor with your knees at 90 degrees.
In the short term, over the counter drugs such as paracetamol can be used as a form of treatment for gamer’s thumb to relieve pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can reduce swelling. This can help treat the symptoms but will not be a permanent solution if the cause isn’t addressed.
Surgery and Steroids
As mentioned earlier, surgery and the use of steroids can be costly and stressful. However, if the issue becomes very bad it may be your only option. Steroids are the most powerful option of reducing swelling and pain. Depending on your specific situation surgery may be required where they may need to cut the sheath around tendons to make more room. Although, as seen with ZooMaa, it may not be a guaranteed or permanent solution.
Stretching and monitoring your health is likely the best treatment to prevent gamer’s thumb before it gets serious. This is especially important if you’re considering making gaming part of your profession or if it’s your most-common past-time.
At the end of the day, we all want to play videogames as much as we want without having to worry about issues like gamer’s thumb and hand pain. We all use our thumbs and hands a lot, not just while gaming but for most things in life, so it’s important that we take care of ourselves to prevent causing long-term damage.