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The Hidden Plague

3 min read

We live in the age of the cyberchondriac, a person who imagines she has a particular disease because her symptoms match those listed on an Internet health site: "Let's see: Rash? Yup. Itchy skin? Yup. Fever, chills, cough, and muscle aches? Yup, yup, yup, and yup. Oh, my gawd, I have schistosomiasis!" This rampant cyberchondria may be driving doctors to distraction, but there's nothing imaginary about the rash of physical aches and pains that come from living and working in a digital world. In fact, the increase in repetitive stress or strain injuries (RSIs) over the past 10 years has been so alarming that it has been called the "hidden plague."

As a language watcher, I spy a bona fide sociological trend whenever I see a cluster of new words and phrases bubble up from the linguistic depths to name or describe something. Over the past few years, that something has been computer work- and play-induced RSI, which has been given a number of new monikers by physicians and physiotherapists. These include computer-related injury (CRI), computer-related syndrome, occupational overuse syndrome (OOS), overuse injury, cumulative trauma disorder, work-related musculoskeletal disorder, and upper limb disorder.

We usually think excessive keyboarding is the culprit behind these aches, but RSI researchers have shown in a number of studies that the keyboard is innocent in all this, with two exceptions: typing for long periods either with an ergonomically incorrect setup or with a cramped notebook keyboard. The real villain of the computer age is the seemingly benign mouse.

Whether it's navigating a modern graphical user interface, building a PowerPoint presentation or graphics file, or surfing the Web, we all find ourselves mousing around for long periods, and apparently evolution didn't think to design our bodies to handle that. Hence, we see epidemic-like numbers of people suffering from ailments such as mouse wrist, mouse elbow, mouse shoulder, and mouse arm.

It's even possible to develop eczema on the tips of your thumb and fingers if you excessively rub these parts against your mouse pad, a malady known as mouse fingers. This term also refers to the pain that shoots through your hand when you move your index and middle finger after a too-lengthy mouse session.

Other high-tech activities can have deleterious effects on various parts of our bodies. Imprudent use of a game console can lead to Nintendo thumb (also known as Nintendinitis). The thumb is also vulnerable to intense texting--typing characters by thumbing keys on a cellphone or SMS (short messaging service) device--an affliction called text message injury (TMI) or SMS thumb. The nature of the addictive game Tetris, with its frenzied keyboarding moves, has trashed more than a few gamers' wrists, a condition known as Tetwrist. The games change, but the ailments stay the same: computer old-timers will recall the outbreak of Space Invaders wrist that occurred in the early 1980s.

The neck pain you feel when you hold a telephone between your shoulder and ear for extended periods is called phone neck (or sometimes telephonitis). A variation on the theme is cellular phone neck, implausibly caused by a driver jamming a phone between his ear and shoulder so that he can keep both hands on the wheel. (These days, it's more likely that just one hand is reserved for the wheel while the other grips a coffee, operates the car's onboard navigation system, or vents road rage using the appropriate finger-based signals.)

A couple of years ago, doctors at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston reported treating two patients with blood leakage under the skin of their palms. They named this condition computer palm and said it was caused by the patients--heavy computer users--often leaning forward on their palms to rest their backs.

Computer-related back pain is common even among young users, and that stiff, I'll-never-be-able-to-straighten-my-back-again feeling that you get after a long computer stint is called computer spine or computer hump. Are your eyes dry, tired, and blurry, and do you have a headache after staring at the screen all day? You may be suffering from computer vision syndrome (CVS). Are your shoulders extremely stiff and painful? Sounds like you have frozen shoulders. One British doctor who specializes in treating this disorder has earned the nickname "Dr. Defrost."

And just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, your mouse potato lifestyle that has you sitting at a computer for long periods and eating cubicle cuisine (also called dining al desko) puts you at risk of the most serious ailment of them all: sedentary death syndrome (or SeDS), death caused by extreme inactivity and poor nutrition. During your next lunch break, you might consider hanging up your mouse, heading out the door, and buying yourself something healthy to nosh. your poor, aching body will thank you for it.

paul mcfedries is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. he also runs word spy, a web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases (

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