Distraction plans: Excessive smartphone use and pain perception

In a previous blog I outlined many physical syndromes that had been reported in the 1980s medical literature, a number of which related to excessive video game playing. This included ‘Space Invader’s Wrist’ (published in the New England Journal of Medicine), ‘Pseudovideoma’ (Journal of Hand Surgery), ‘Pac-Man Phalanx’ (Arthritis and Rheumatism) and ‘Joystick Digit’ (Journal of the American Medical Association). More recently, other new medical complaints have been reported related to excessive mobile phone use including a report of ‘Blackberry thumb’ in a 2013 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. 

Earlier this month saw the publication of a case report involving a tendon rupture in a man excessively playing a video game on his smartphone. The report appeared in JAMA Internal Medicine by Dr. Andrew Doan and his colleagues (the same Dr. Doan that reported a case study of someone “addicted” to Google Glass that I examined in a previous blog). The authors of the latest report wrote:

“We describe a patient with rupture of the extensor pollicis longus tendon associated with excessive video game play on his smartphone. A 29-year-old, right hand–dominant man presented with chronic left thumb pain and loss of active motion. Before the onset of symptoms, he reported playing a video game on his smartphone all day for 6 to 8 weeks. He played with his left hand while using his right hand for other tasks, stating that ‘playing was a kind of secondary thing, but it was constantly on.’ When playing the video game, the patient reported that he felt no pain. He reported no injuries or prior operations to either hand. He denied a history of inflammatory arthritis, quinolone use, or other predisposing medical condition for ten-don rupture. On physical examination, the left extensor pollicis longus tendon was not palpable, and no tendon motion was noted with wrist tenodesis. The thumb metacarpophalangeal range of motion was 10° to 80°, and thumb interphalangeal range of motion was 30° to 70°. The findings on physical examination of the patient’s right hand were unremarkable. The clinical diagnosis was rupture of the left extensor pollicis longus tendon. A magnetic resonance imaging study of his left hand revealed tendon attenuation and rupture of the tendon. Radiographic studies of the wrist found no bone spurs or prior or current fractures. The patient subsequently underwent an extensor indicis proprius (1 of 2 tendons that extend the index finger) to extensor pollicis longus tendon transfer. During surgery, rupture of the extensor pollicis longus tendon was seen between the metacarpophalangeal and wrist joints”

One of the things that I found interesting was that despite the tendon rupture, when the man was actually playing the game, he felt no pain. This is something I know only too well from personal experience. Unfortunately, I have a chronic and degenerative spinal complaint (herniated discs in my neck) but I feel no pain whatsoever when I am cognitively distracted. I find that work is a much better analgesic than dihydrocodeine (i.e., when I am working I feel no pain whatsoever). However, playing video games come a close second as when I am engaged in video game playing (even on simple casual games), the fact that it takes up all my cognitive resources means that I don’t feel any pain. This is nothing new and many medics are aware of the therapeutic benefits of gaming. There are now many studies showing that children undergoing chemotherapy need much less pain relief if they play video games after their treatment compared to children that don’t play video games. (In fact I’ve written a number of papers and book chapters on ‘video game therapy’ – see ‘Further reading’ below). This case report then went on to say:

“Video games suppress pain perception in pediatric patients and during burn treatments. Visual distraction and neuroendocrine hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal arousal provide a plausible explanation for why the patient did not feel pain from his injury. Without the expected physiologic negative pain feedback, excessive gaming may have led to tendon attenuation and subsequent attritional rupture of the tendon. Attritional rupture at the midtendon differs from high- energy ruptures that occur where the tendon is thinnest or be- tween tendon and bone. Although this is only a single case report, research might consider whether video games have a role in clinical pain management and as nonpharmacologic alternatives during uncomfortable or painful medical procedures. They may also have a role in reducing stress. It may be interesting to ascertain whether various games differ in their ability to reduce the perception of pain…Research might also consider whether pain reduction is a reason some individuals play video games excessively, manifest addiction, or sustain injuries associated with video gaming”.

This conclusion does appear to suggest that the authors are unaware of the many hundreds of studies that have examined the therapeutic benefits of gaming (in fact there’s even an academic journal dedicated to such studies appropriately called the Games For Health Journal). As I have noted in a number of my writings about video gaming as a medical intervention for children:

  • Videogames are likely to engage much of a person’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity required.
  • Videogames allow the possibility to achieve sustained achievement because of the level of difficulty (i.e., challenge) of most games during extended play.
  • Videogames appear to appeal most to adolescents.

Consequently, videogames have also been used in a number of studies as ‘distractor tasks’. This latest case report highlights the simultaneous potential positive and negatives of gaming within a single individual but also highlights the fact that video gaming is both mobile and spreading to many more types of hardware. I’m now wondering which medical team will be the first to write about a new medical syndrome relating to the new Apple Watch.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Behr, J.T. (1984). Pseudovideoma. Journal of Hand Surgery, 9(4), 613.

Gibofsky, A. (1983). Pac‐Man phalanx. Arthritis and Rheumatism, 26(1), 120.

Gilman, L., Cage, D.N., Horn, A. Bishop, F., Klam, W.P. & Doan, A.P. (2015). Tendon rupture associated with excessive smartphone gaming. JAMA Internal Medicine, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.0753

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). The therapeutic use of videogames in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 547-554.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M. D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

McCowan, T.C. (1981). Space Invader’s wrist. New England Journal of Medicine, 304,1368.

Osterman, A. L., Weinberg, P., & Miller, G. (1987). Joystick digit. Journal of the American Medical Association, 257(6), 782.

O’Sullivan, B. (2013). Beyond BlackBerry thumb. CMAJ, 185, 185-186.

Soe, G.B., Gersten, L. M., Wilkins, J., Patzakis, M. J., & Harvey, J.P. (1987). Infection associated with joystick mimicking a spider bite. Western Journal of Medicine, 146(6), 748.

Yung, K., Eickhoff, E., Davis, D. L., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2014). Internet Addiction Disorder and problematic use of Google Glass™ in patient treated at a residential substance abuse treatment program. Addictive Behaviors, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2014.09.024.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on April 20, 2015, in Addiction, Adolescence, Case Studies, Cyberpsychology, Games, Obsession, Online addictions, Online gaming, Pain, Popular Culture, Psychology, Technological addiction, Technology, Video game addiction, Video games, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks for sharing your addiction knowledge with us. You are quite a valuable resource.

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