The Virtual Athlete: The Rise of Video Gaming and Related Injuries

by Eli Reece

The Virtual Athlete: The Rise of Video Gaming and Related Injuries

Like many others, I have seemingly been surrounded by the ever rising wave of non-stop video gaming. Past roommates and peers spent entire days repetitively twitching their thumbs on controllers and staring into the LED lights of their television. They are not alone in their fondness of video games. 

A recent study found that 43% of American adults play some form of video games, whether that be console games (Xbox, PlayStation), cell phone games, or computer games. When looking only at teenagers, a staggering 75% of teenage girls and 84% of teenage boys stated they regularly play video games.

The industry is booming. Once only considered a hobby activity, video games have evolved to include anyone from casual gamers all the way to professionals, otherwise known as esport athletes. And as with any form of athlete, injuries do occur.

“The mental effect of video games has long been studied, but we are now beginning to see the physical toll video games exert on the body due to small repetitive movements and sustained sitting positions,” states Wayne Chen, MD, who specializes in hand, wrist, and elbow surgery.

Overuse injuries in gamers are rising to epidemic levels, and this can largely be attributed to the non-ergonomic designs of gaming devices. Andrew M. I. Bogle, MD, who also specializes in hand, wrist, and elbow surgery explains, “As screens, controllers, and keyboards get smaller and smaller, the strain on the hands only increases.”  

What are some common video game related injuries?

Most video game injuries can be divided into three separate categories.

Postural syndromes

Video games often require extended periods of sitting in a fixed position. This awkward prolonged posture can put significant pressure on the spine and neck, especially if your posture is poor, leading to early degeneration in the lower back and neck.

  • Tension-type headaches
  • Sacroiliac dysfunction
  • Upper and lower crossed syndrome

Repetitive strain injuries

Constant use of a controller, mouse, and/or keyboard involves repetitive small motions that rely on your elbows, wrists, and hands. The positions created by the range of motions used during video games lead to repetitive strain injuries, which are the most common type of video game injury. Symptoms may include pain and weakness in the affected area.  

Nerve impingement

Whether you are a casual gamer or a professional, nerve impingement is extremely common. Certain nerves are more prone to injury, and the movements required for video games can cause irritation of these nerves. Nerves such as the median nerve in the wrist, the ulnar nerve in the elbow, and the sciatic nerve in the gluteal region are at high risk for being irritated while playing video games.  Symptoms such as numbness and tingling, weakness, and muscle wasting can develop.    

What are the treatment options for video game related injuries?

  • Rest is essential to give your body time to properly heal. Playing through the pain will likely make the injury worse.
  • Anti-inflammatory medication such as Aleve and Advil can help reduce pain and swelling caused by inflammation.
  • Physical and hand therapy can be extremely beneficial to relieve current symptoms.

How can I prevent video game related injuries?

  • Play for shorter periods of time. Instead of eight hours straight, play for one or two hour increments.
  • Stretch hand, shoulders, and legs before playing to keep your body loose and prepared for the activity.
  • Frequently take breaks to move around and get your blood flowing.   

These prevention techniques can do more than help video gamers avoid common video game related injuries. They are crucial in reducing the risk of more significant conditions such as deep vein thrombosis that can lead to hospitalization.