Gaming: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly -- and How to Help

Gaming: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly -- and How to Help

Dr. Peter Grinspoon, M.D.   
Member of SummaForte Advisory Committee  
Primary Care Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital  
Instructor, Harvard Medical School 

Over 160 million Americans play video games – about half the population. It is mostly adults who game. According to a recent survey, only one-fifth of gamers are under the age of eighteen. Video games have been suggested to improve some cognitive skills, such as control of attention and spatial reasoning. They have also been used in medicine, to train surgeons, to train patients to walk better, and to help people with ADHD, to name a few examples. They can provide a “virtual community” to people who otherwise might be alone. Yet, video games can also have harmful effects on one’s health. What are the common health pitfalls of gaming, and what can be done to address them?

Repetitive stress injuries or “overuse” injuries are exactly what they sound like: injuries that come from the stress caused from the repeated use of a specific muscle or tendon that wasn’t designed or built for that type of activity. The stress results in inflammation, which results in pain. A common example of this type of injury is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. We evolved hunting and gathering, not clicking keyboards and controllers all day, and the median nerve gets inflamed from this repetitive activity, resulting in pain, weakness and numbness. 

Gaming results in some characteristic repetitive stress injuries. One is known as “gamers thumb”, when the tendons that move the thumb become irritated and inflamed, which leads to pain, and can cause swelling and limited movement. Gamers are also at risk for trigger finger, which is when, due to chronic inflammation, a finger gets stuck in the bent position. Additionally, as a result of holding certain unnatural arm positions for long periods of time, gamers are susceptible to tennis elbow, an inflammation of the place where the tendon inserts into the bone on the outside of the elbow. This can be quite painful and can take months to resolve. On top of all of this, gamers can suffer from anxiety and insomnia.

What is the best approach to treating these maladies? The key is to target the inflammation. For the repetitive stress injuries, most doctors would recommend that you take a break from the activity that is causing the irritation. For competitive gamers, however, such absences can have an unwanted debilitating effect on their performance, sometimes requiring long periods of time to work back to their skill levels.

Treating the injury with ice is invaluable for recovery, and you should be icing the inflamed areas for at least five or ten minutes four times a day. Doctors often recommend anti-inflammatory medication to both control the pain and help reduce inflammation. People commonly use non-steroidal non-inflammatory medications such as Ibuprofen (Advil) or Naproxen (Aleve) but increasingly, there are concerns associated with these medications having to do with heart attack, ulcer, gastritis and kidney failure.

An incredibly exciting new field in the treatment of inflammatory conditions, such as the repetitive use injuries that plague gamers, is treatment with cannabinoids –chemical compounds found in the hemp plant that work via the natural cannabis-like receptors in our bodies. Cannabinoids have the potential to lower pain and inflammation effectively and safely. Currently, cannabidiol (“CBD”) is a very popular cannabinoid that is being used for exactly this purpose. It can be used topically or orally, and not only can it help with the inflammation that gamers face in their elbows, fingers, wrist and thumbs, it can also be used to help with sleep and anxiety. Other so-called “minor cannabinoids” from the hemp plant known best by their shorter names CBC, CBG, CBN, etc. -- which are just being better understood and made available to consumers, also show tremendous potential to help people such as gamers heal their injuries and get back to – or continue playing -- the activities they enjoy.