Coeds Cope With Technology-Induced Thumb Pain

More and more of us are suffering from sore thumbs. Ergonomics experts say too much texting and typing on iPads and other tablets can cause pain in the hands, shoulders, neck and back. College students talk about coping with the strain of all their high-tech gadgets.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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NORRIS: These days, technology has become a pain - literally - in the thumb, the wrist, the neck - you name it. Ergonomics experts blame too much texting and typing on tablets and other mobile devices. So we sent NPR's Joel Rose to find out how college students are coping with the strain of all their high-tech gadgets.

JOEL ROSE: A generation ago, ergonomics experts only had to worry about one computer workstation per person, usually the one at the office. Now, that computer has been joined - if not replaced altogether - by a host of mobile devices. The combinations are endless and potentially problematic.

CAROL STUART-BUTTLE: We're talking about exposure throughout a day.

ROSE: Carol Stuart-Buttle is an ergonomics consultant in Philadelphia. She says each high-tech gadget presents its own problems. With the iPad, it's a touch screen that doesn't give when you type on it. And the angle can be an issue, too.

STUART-BUTTLE: Your wrist can be really angled trying to tap away at the touch screen. And so, you've got an angled wrist. You go to work. And if your workstation isn't so great, you have more angled wrist. And if we have in the same fixed position all the time, we begin to see troubles - tendonitis formations and other effects like that.

ROSE: Those effects aren't just showing up in older members of the workforce. Stuart-Buttle says she's seeing the same thing with young people in college, too.

STUART-BUTTLE: Schools with lots of papers, heavy use of computers and their thumbs, fingers, hands, all beginning to wear out a little bit.

ROSE: I tried to find some of those appendages at the University of Pennsylvania, in a student lounge at the Wharton School that could pass for a well-stocked Apple store. Sophomore Evan Rosenbaum(ph) says he tries to avoid typing anything longer than a quick email on his iPad.

EVAN ROSENBAUM: Your wrist is definitely going to start to hurt, being that the keyboard is too small to type with both your thumbs. But it's also - it's not big enough to type fully.

ROSE: Penn junior Alexandra Enni(ph) says she types on her iPad all the time.

ALEXANDRA ENNI: I've had it since May 10th, which was my birthday. And I type long emails, blog posts, journal entries, and I've never had an issue. I have small fingers, though. I don't know if that makes a difference.

ROSE: I did talk to a few students who suffered from pain and discomfort. And senior Haoda Wi(ph) found it wasn't comfortable to take notes on his iPad because the screen doesn't bounce back like a normal keyboard would.

HAODA WI: If I type for half-hour, then my hand would start to kind of - sore, yeah. Just uncomfortable. That's why I come buy the wireless keyboard.

ROSE: Wi shows me the wireless keyboard he bought to use with this iPad. Ergonomics experts like separate keyboards because ideally, you want your screen and your typing surface in different places.

But Carol Stuart-Buttle says one of the best things you can do to prevent repetitive stress injuries is also one of the easiest. Just take a break.

STUART-BUTTLE: It really has to be a self-monitoring situation with all of these gadgets. Even with a good workstation, you still have to make sure that it's right, and that you take breaks. But it's that sustained exposure that leads to trouble.

ROSE: Stuart-Buttle says our gadgets may be designed to keep us connected 24/7, but our bodies aren't.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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