In 2001 I learned that if you are playing video games and your hands start to hurt, you should stop. After ignoring the pain in my right hand for hours while playing the PC game Max Payne, and then a month later ignoring the numbness in my left hand as I obsessively pushed through the PS2 game Ico, I found myself with chronic pain in both hands that I have been struggling with ever since. Last spring a succession of entertaining Wii games proved that I hadn’t learned my lesson very well. I overplayed once again, and wound up in so much pain that I had to stop playing games for about three months.
I have what is called a repetitive stress injury that gives me a lot of pain in my hands. What I have been told is that this is due to swelling or compression along the carpal tunnel, a sheath for a nerve and some tendons that run from the palm to the shoulder. (I do not, however, have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome). It doesn’t happen to everyone – some people can play video games non-stop for 24 hours and be fine – but it happens to a lot of people.
I have tried all sorts of therapies and devices to get the pain under control, and I have found a few things that seem to work for me. For others who have similar problems or feel they are in danger of developing them, here are the things I found most helpful.
(I’m not a doctor, so please don’t consider any of this medical advice. This is just what has worked for one sufferer.
Basic Hand Stretches
Nothing is more important than hand stretches. In fact, if you regularly take breaks from playing games and using your computer to stretch, you have a good chance of avoiding problems altogether.
The most common hand stretches involve holding your hand in front of you, fingers pointed up and palm facing away, and then pulling your fingers towards you gently with the other hand, and then pointing the fingers down, putting your free hand against the back of the hand you’re stretching and gently pulling your hand towards you once again. A physical therapist suggested a variation in which instead of pushing on all four fingers when I’m in the fingers-up position I do the index and middle and then do the ring and pinky fingers separately, and that’s how I do it.
I can’t find those specific stretches online, but here’s a good set of hand stretches you can try.
I also like the Flex Extend Wrist Roll you can find here. This is a collection of exercises that are supposed to help with Carpal Tunnel issues. Try them and see what works for you.
Recommended by a physical therapist, the cock-up splint wraps around your thumb and wrist in such a way that you have to keep your wrists in a neutral position that puts the least stress on the Carpal Tunnel. At the height of my pain I wore them constantly, day and night, to the extent that I could stand it. Now I only wear them when I play video games or work at the computer. They make a huge difference in how long I can work without pain, and I can’t recommend them strongly enough.
Advanced Stretches and Exercises
If you’re in a lot of pain, you may need some more serious exercises to get your hands in shape.
One thing you can try is nerve flossing, in which you try to get the nerve sliding easily along the carpal tunnel. One of my doctors recommended holding your straight arm down, palm forward and hand a few inches from your body, then bending the wrist back and returning it to neutral. It’s not a stretch, it’s more like your hand is a little wing and you’re flapping it. Do this 30 times.
That same doctor recommended two books that I have found very useful. These are Permanent Pain Cure by Ming Chew (try the Shrug Muscle Stretch on Ming’s sample stretches page) and Muscle Medicine by Rob Destefano. These books offer stretches and exercises to relieve pain in every part of your body, including your hands. If you’re in serious pain, you should really check them out
You can also try BodyMindResources’ online “Heal Yourself Series.” This is also a detailed series of stretches for every part of the body. Some I like, some I don’t. I have no idea if this guy knows what he’s talking about – some of his theories on carpal tunnel syndrome aren’t things I’ve heard anywhere else – but it’s free and some of it does seem helpful.
I’ve had physical therapy a few times for my hands. I started with the standard physical therapy, which uses heat and electricity and ultrasound, stretches and strengthening. This helped some, but I actually had a bit more success with the alternative methods, Active Release Technique and Graston Technique, both painful but seemingly effective approaches to chronic pain. These techniques are generally done by chiropractors, but they are not chiropractic techniques, just other sorts of alternative healing approaches. I went to a Dr. Williams in New York (who recommended the books mentioned above) and found the treatments helpful, although the first time I went my insurance company cut me off before I had as many sessions as I needed and the second time I had no insurance and could only have as many treatments as I could afford to pay for myself. Would enough sessions completely alleviate the problem? Let me know if you find out.
In any article on repetitive stress injuries you will read that you need to sit and work ergonomically. For example, at the computer you’re supposed to have your monitor and keyboard set at the right height and you’re supposed to keep your feet flat on the floor. I suspect in playing videogames you are also better off seated properly, but honestly I am always slumped on the couch. Here’s some info on using your computer ergonomically.
I also find a zero-tension mouse like the 3M Ergonomic Mouse helpful when working at the computer. A zero-tension mouse is basically a control stick on a base, allowing you to hole your hand in a vertical position. Using the 3M mouse does seem to help a little, but it can be annoying to use, so I have a second, conventional mouse attached to my PC as well. I use the 3M mouse with my right hand and the conventional mouse with my left hand so I can rest my hands alternately.