A pain in the thumb

Just what we all need – more ways to get repetitive stress injuries.

But as the popularity of text messaging — on BlackBerries, cellular phones and other handheld devices — explodes across the United States, some fear for the health of America’s thumbs. All that thumbing at tiny handheld keyboards, experts on ergonomics and hand therapists say, can have painful consequences for a digit that was hardly designed for such tasks.

The thumb, which through human history has been the essential counterpart to fingers for grasping items, has taken on new prominence, working solo as a communications enabler for millions, perhaps billions, of text messagers around the world.

“The thumb is not a particularly dexterous digit,” said Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University. “It’s really designed to use in opposition to the fingers. It is not designed for use in getting information into a system. People who use their thumbs a great deal for these kinds of tasks surely risk developing painful conditions.”

Texting is in its infancy in the United States, where the thumb’s principal communication task is still signaling approval or disapproval by pointing up or down. But in Japan, where the craze started, millions of members of the oyayubi-zoku, or thumb tribe, are among the world’s leading “textperts.”

Nowhere has thumb use been taken to greater lengths, according to “On the Mobile,” a study conducted for cell-phone giant Motorola. The report found that Japanese texters have begun using their thumbs for other tasks normally assigned to fingers, like pointing and ringing doorbells.

Well, at least they don’t say that Japanese by the millions have also been showing up in doctors’ offices holding their thumbs and moaning softly, so maybe all is not lost just yet. As a Blackberry administrator and addicted user, I certainly hope so.

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2 Responses to A pain in the thumb

  1. Charles E says:

    Well, maybe not millions, but thousands of Japanese have gone to doctors for RSI in their thumb. It started long before text messaging, it was known as “Nintendo thumb.”

  2. All of these devices were designed by people under the age of fifty. No fifty-year-old would design something with teensy buttons and screens.

    Here’s what I would do:

    — Make something of roughly the same shape as the BBerry or other PDA, but have it open up clamshell fashion, just like a baby laptop. This allows you to use a bigger screen size/font for the simple reason that you’ve gone from portrait to landscape, so to speak, and are emulating a laptop/desktop screen. This also allows for much bigger keys.

    — Put the phone bits on the outside cover, but have them situated so they poke out a bit (that is, they’re not totally flush with the cover surface) and so that the bottom of the ear piece and the top of the mouth piece are toed-in slightly so when you hold the thing up to the side of your face, the ear and mouth pieces are curved to follow the shape of the face (this would make background noise less of an issue).

    There! Now you’ve got a phone/PDA — and if you throw in a few USB ports and make sure the device is wide enough to fit in an 80 GB PCMCIA Type III card, you’ve also got all the computer most of us will ever need.

    But again, it’s going to take one of the techie types to reach his fiftieth birthday before the utility of my design becomes apparent. 😉

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