Battling over video games

June 13, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

Dr. Mark Yacyk is probably like many parents of youngsters who like to play video games.

He and his son occasionally argue over when Andrew, 10, should take a break from game playing.

"I'm yelling at him to put the thing down," Yacyk said. But then Yacyk hears, "'Dad, I've got to capture this one guy. Please just let me finish.'"

Sometimes dad wins. Sometimes Andrew wins.

The reason Yacyk, a physiatrist - a doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation - with Physical Medicine Specialists in Hagerstown, wants his son to take a break is to prevent injury such as a muscle strain, tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Those are some of the health concerns associated with playing video games, in which players typically sit and stare at the game displayed on a TV or computer screen. Players manipulate a controller with buttons and joysticks, making repeated, sometimes vigorous, small movements of thumbs and fingers to direct characters' actions on the screen.

New cause for old problem

Not much is known about the long-term possibility of wrist damage, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, to people who play a lot of video games, Yacyk said.

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when repetitive hand motion causes the already tight tunnel of wrist bones and ligaments to compress onto the median nerve, compromising blood flow to the nerve, Yacyk said. The result is numbness or pain in the wrist, palm, fingers and thumb.

Most carpal tunnel syndrome patients developed the problem once they entered the work force and didn't play video games to the degree many young people do today, Yacyk said.

He said it would make sense if future studies show that the generation of frequent gamers has a greater chance of developing carpal tunnel syndrome, and perhaps at an earlier age, but the jury is still out.

Patients usually have a different primary complaint or primary cause for carpal tunnel syndrome, Yacyk said, but playing video games exacerbates the problem.

He said he doesn't generally see carpal tunnel syndrome in children, but playing video games for long hours can lead to tendinitis and strains.

To prevent that, he recommends taking a break every 20 to 30 minutes for five or 10 minutes and stretching the finger and wrist muscles.

Players have a tendency to clench the controls, especially if they are playing a handheld game, he said.

They also should stretch their neck because they might sit in an awkward position when playing, leading to a stiff neck, Yacyk said.

Staring leads to strain

Dr. Erik Bergman with Bergman Eye Associates in Hagerstown also recommends breaks, at least every hour for 10 or 15 minutes, to rest eyes.

There's no physical evidence that playing video games causes physical damage to the eyes, but it can cause eye strain, Bergman said. Symptoms include an achy and tired feeling in the eyes, headache and irritability.

Irritability is one of the symptoms of computer or video game addiction, according to The National Institute on Media and the Family.

The institute lists addiction symptoms for children and adults at its Web site at


tion.shtml. The main Web site also has a link to a quiz people can take to determine if they or someone they know is likely addicted to video games.

A study by the Minnesota School on Professional Psychology and the National Institute on Media and the Family found that with adolescents addicted to playing video games there were more reports of them being involved in physical fights, more arguments with friends and teachers, and lower grades.

A bit of good news

A major concern with video games is that they are a sedentary activity, but there are games that encourage movement.

One game that prohibits sitting and is garnering more attention for its health benefits is "Dance Dance Revolution."

The West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency and the West Virginia Department of Education are using the game to help children who are overweight or are at risk of becoming overweight, said Nidia Henderson, health promotions director for the insurance agency.

The game, which is available for PlayStation 2 and Xbox, comes with a floor pad for players to dance on. The floor pad has four circles with arrows pointing left, right, up and down. Dancers place their feet on the arrows as directed by a pattern of left, right, down and up arrows that scrolls on the TV screen. Different levels of difficulty are available - faster or slower music, simpler or more complex dance choreography.

The game is very appealing and very much a physical workout for players.

"It is enormous fun. Unlike a sedentary video game that makes their health worse, this has the opposite effect. It is great for vascular health, a great cardiac workout," Henderson said. "We got interested because we're one of the most obese states in the nation."

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