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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.

I love view: Can Google Glass be addictive?

Last week, The Guardian (and news media all over the world) reported the story of a man being treated for internet addiction disorder brought on by his excessive use of Google Glass. According to The Guardian’s report:

“The man had been using the technology for around 18 hours a day – removing it only to sleep and wash – and complained of feeling irritable and argumentative without the device. In the two months since he bought the device, he had also begun experiencing his dreams as if viewed through the device’s small grey window…[The patient] had checked into the Sarp [Substance Addiction Recovery Program] in September 2013 for alcoholism treatment. The facility requires patients to steer clear of addictive behaviours for 35 days – no alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes – but it also takes away all electronic devices. Doctors noticed the patient repeatedly tapped his right temple with his index finger. He said the movement was an involuntary mimic of the motion regularly used to switch on the heads-up display on his Google Glass”.

The story was based on a case study that has just been published in the journal Addictive Behaviors by Dr. Kathryn Yung and her colleagues from the Department of Mental Health, Naval Medical Center in San Diego (United States). The authors claim that the paper (i) reported the first ever case of internet addiction disorder involving the problematic use of Google Glass, (ii) showed that excessive and problematic uses of Google Glass can be associated with involuntary movements to the temple area and short-term memory problems, and (iii) highlighted that the man in their case study displayed frustration and irritability that were related to withdrawal symptoms from excessive use of Google Glass. For those reading this who have not yet come across what Google Glass is, the authors provided a brief description: 

Google Glass™ was named as one of the best inventions of the year by Time Magazine in 2012. The device is a wearable mobile computing device with Bluetooth connectivity to internet-ready devices. Google Glass™ has an optical head-mounted display, resembling eyeglasses; it displays information in a Smartphone-like, but hands-free format that is controlled via voice commands and touch”.

The man that came in for treatment was a 31-year old enlisted service member who had served seven months in Afghanistan. Although he did not suffer any kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he was reported by the authors as having a mood disorder, most consistent with a substance-induced hypomania overlaying a depressive disorder, anxiety disorder with characteristics of social phobia, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and severe alcohol and tobacco use disorders”. His referral to the substance use program was because he had resumed problematic alcohol drinking following a previous eight-week intensive outpatient treatment. It was only after re-entering the program that staff noticed other behaviours that were nothing to do with his alcohol problem. More specifically, they reported that:

“The patient had been wearing the Google Glass™ device each day for up to 18 h for two months prior to admission, removing the device during sleep and bathing. He was given permission by his superiors to use the device at work, as the device allowed him to function at a high level by accessing detailed and complicated information quickly. The patient shared that the Google Glass™ increased his confidence with social situations, as the device frequently became an initial topic of discussion. All electronic devices and mobile computing devices are customarily removed from patients during substance rehabilitation treatment. The patient noted significant frustration and irritability related to not being able to use the device during treatment. He stated, ‘The withdrawal from this is much worse than the withdrawal I went through from alcohol’, He noted that when he dreamed during his residential treatment, he envisioned the dream through the device. He would experience the dream through a small gray window, which was consistent with what he saw when wearing the device while awake. He reported that if he had been prevented from wearing the device while at work, he would become extremely irritable and argumentative. When asked questions by the examiner, the patient was noted on exam to reach his right hand up to his temple area and tap it with his forefinger. He explained that this felt almost involuntary, in that it was the familiar motion he would make in order to turn on the device in order to access information and answer questions. He found that he almost ‘craved’ using the device, especially when trying to recall information”.

Even though my primary area of research interest in behavioural addictions, the thing that caught my attention in the description above was the observation that his dreams were experienced in the way he viewed things through Google Glass while he was awake. On first reading this I thought this sounding very much like some research I have been doing with my colleague Angelica Ortiz de Gortari on Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP) in which gamers transfer aspects of their game playing into real life situations. Our work is an extension of the so-called Tetris Effect where Tetris players see falling blocks before their eyes even when they are not playing the game. It appears the authors of this case study has also made the same connection as they reported:

The patient’s experiences of viewing his dreams through the device appear to be best explained solely by his heavy use of the device and may be consistent with what is referred to as the ‘Tetris Effect’. When individuals play the game Tetris for long periods of time, they report seeing invasive imagery of the game in their sleep (Stickgold, Malia, Maguire, Roddenberry, & O’Connor, 2000). Interestingly, Stickgold et al. noted that patients with amnesia due to traumatic brain injury, who had trouble with short-term memory recall, reported invasive imagery of the game during sleep even though they did not recall playing the game (Stickgold et al., 2000). Technology-assisted learning devices and video gaming appear to be powerful methods to aid in the acquisition of new information. Further studies in the field of traumatic brain injury utilizing gaming and technology-assisted learning are needed”.

At the end of the 35-day inpatient stay, the outcome was reported as being good. The patient reported he felt less irritable, and he was making far fewer compulsive movements to his temple. However, no further follow-up was reported by Yung and her colleagues. There are, of course, wider questions about whether addiction to the internet even exists although the article in The Guardian did provide a link to a comprehensive and systematic review of internet addiction that I co-authored with Dr. Kuss and others in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design. As regular readers of my blog will be aware, I believe that there is a fundamental difference between addictions on the internet and addictions to the internet. The vast majority of people appear to have addictions on the internet (such as gambling addiction, gaming addiction, sex addiction, shopping addiction, etc.) where the internet facilitates other addictive behaviours. However, there is growing evidence of internet-only addictive behaviour (with social networking addiction being the most common).

In relation to this case study, there have been some that have said that the study doesn’t have face validity because the battery life of Google Glass is so small that it is impossible to spend up to 18 hours a day wearing it. (For instance, check out an interesting article written by Taylor Hatmaker published by the Daily Dot). I ought to add that one of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Andrew Doan did say to various news outlets that:

“A wearable device is constantly there – so the neurological reward associated with using it is constantly accessible. There’s nothing inherently bad about Google Glass. It’s just that there is very little time between these rushes. So for an individual who’s looking to escape, for an individual who has underlying mental dysregulation, for people with a predisposition for addiction, technology provides a very convenient way to access these rushes. And the danger with wearable technology is that you’re allowed to be almost constantly in the closet, while appearing like you’re present in the moment”.

Based on the two-page paper that was published, I don’t think there was enough evidence presented to say whether the man in question was addicted to the internet via Google Glass. There were certainly elements associated with addiction but that doesn’t mean somebody is genuinely addicted. Furthermore, most addictive behaviours have to have been present for at least six months before being diagnosed as a genuine addiction. In this case, the man had only been using Google Glass for two months before entering the treatment program.

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

Further reading

Ghorayshi, A. (2014). Google glass user treated for internet addiction caused by device. The Guardian, October 14. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/14/google-glass-user-treated-addiction-withdrawal-symptoms

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Internet addiction – Time to be taken seriously? Addiction Research, 8, 413-418.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Internet abuse and internet addiction in the workplace. Journal of Worplace Learning, 7, 463-472.

Hatmaker, T. (2014). There is no such thing as Google Glass addiction. The Daily Dot, October 15. Located at: https://www.dailydot.com/technology/google-glass-internet-addiction/

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D. & Binder, J. (2013). Internet addiction in students: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 959-966.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014).  Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4026-4052.

Kuss, D.J., Shorter, G.W., van Rooij, A.J., Griffiths, M.D., & Schoenmakers, T.M. (2014). Assessing Internet addiction using the parsimonious Internet addiction components model – A preliminary study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 351-366.

Kuss, D.J., van Rooij, A.J., Shorter, G.W., Griffiths, M.D. & van de Mheen, D. (2013). Internet addiction in adolescents: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1987-1996.

Ortiz de Gotari, A., Aronnson, K. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(3), 15-33.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30, 95-105.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 4(1), 59-75.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 432-452.

Stickgold, R., Malia, A., Maguire, D., Roddenberry, D., & O’Connor, M. (2000). Replaying the game: Hypnagogic images in normals and amnesics. Science, 290, 350–353.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 31-51.

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.