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Much Pain, No Game

Much Pain, No Game

Much Pain, No Game

When Our Stupid Aging Bodies Betray Us and Try to Force Us to Stop Playing Games


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Oh, The Pain

I once told the IT Director at a firm I where I was teaching that I was a gamer. 

“Let me get this straight,” she said, eyeing me with some incredulity.  “So after all day on the computer here you go home and… get on the computer again?  For fun.”  Her eyes shone with a mixture of scorn and pity.  “Are you INSANE?”

Call me crazy, but yeah, I’m a gamer.  All the time.  Judge me if you must.

Of course that does mean that I spend entirely too much time staring at video screens of various types, whether it’s the television, PC, tablet, smart phone, or some handheld gaming device.  Can’t be great for my eyes. 

And, alas, it turns out it’s not so great for my hands, either. 

While I’ve never suffered from carpal tunnel (knock on carbon fiber), I have had various bouts of what I clinically refer to as Gamer Mouse Hand Syndrome.  My hands either begin aching, or feeling weirdly prickly, or tingly and numb, or some combination.

I try to pay attention to those flare-ups.  My IT colleague, a long-time acute carpel tunnel sufferer, has emphatically confirmed to me that it’s the ignoring of such symptoms that can lead you into blundering your way into permanent nerve and/or tendon damage.  “Pushing through the pain” to finish that last puzzle in Deponia = not a good idea.  I have a couple of friends I’ve met through tabletop board gaming who have had to give up video and computer gaming completely because of damage they’ve done to their hands.  I don’t want that to happen to me.

When I have issues, it’s all about the mouse.  I rarely get pain in my left hand; it’s usually my hardworking right Mouse Hand. 

When I get a mild case, I ice the hand, try to take it easy on the gaming, use a wrist wrap, and just generally give the mouse a break.  When it’s a bit more persistent, I can usually get relief by just playing games on the consoles for a while.  The grip on the PS3 or XBox 360 controllers seems to be different enough that it doesn’t stress the hand in the same way. 

But, starting late this summer, I began to have a negative mouse reaction that seemed unusually persistent.  Specifically, in addition to some mild pain, the ring finger on my right hand would grow numb and tingly. 

I switched to the PS3 for a few days – after all, those monsters in Ni No Kuni weren’t going to slay themselves – and was disappointed to still have some numbness in my finger after playing for more than about twenty minutes.  Yikes, I thought.  Time to get to the bottom of this.

Heal Thyself

So I did the responsible thing and talked to my doctor.  So I went online and self-diagnosed.

Turns out I have developed a mild case of something called Ulnar Compression. The ulnar nerve your “funny bone” nerve that’s a big tingle-causing culprit even without Mouse Abuse.  This made sense to me, particularly considering I destroyed my right elbow in a trip-and-fall accident in 2000.  My elbow is mostly titanium and who knows if my ulnar nerve is even in the proper place any more.

Not good.  Even if I gave up gaming entirely, being on a computer for hours a day is still an integral part of how I earn a living. 

At first, I tried all of my old tricks.  I took it easy with the games. I iced my hands.  I used stress balls.  I stretched my hands.  All of the above a LOT.

Still, within seconds of putting my hand around a mouse, the tingling and hand unhappiness would begin again.  Mind you, I’m not holding the mouse in some kind of extreme death grip or anything.  I try to hold it gently, like a baby bird. 

No relief.

Taking Charge

So I gave up and finally called my doctor.  So I returned to the internet.  This time looking for mouse alternatives.

For some time I’ve been interested in vertical mice like the Evoluent Vertical Mouse.  Expensive, but appealing.  The idea behind a vertical mouse is that your hand and wrist are in a more neutral, relaxed position, 90 degrees different from the parallel-to-the-desk posture used with traditional mice. 

But the fact that I knew I still had to grip the damn thing.  My issues seem linked to gripping. I didn’t want a $120 dollar mouse that still sent my hand to Tingle Land.

Then I noticed a mouse alternative that was new to me.  It’s called a “roller mouse.”  Now this term is immediately a problem, since to most people it conjures up images of a trackball mouse.  But it’s nothing like a trackball mouse.  In fact, you might wonder what the hell it is the first time you see it.

Have you guys ever seen this?  Take a look:

Your first reaction might be what mine was:  What the hell is this, and how do I use it?  The problem is that the most important part of the device is the hardest to really discern in a photo like this.  What you’re looking for is the thin black, pencil-like thing that’s a bit above the silvery buttons.  That’s the roller. Look again:
That dowel-like thing is the key to this remarkable device.  You roll it and move it back and forth with your fingers, and that’s how the you move the pointer on the screen.  The buttons below the dowel give you single-click, double-click, right-click, scroll, copy, and paste.

You place this device right below your keyboard.  It even comes with little feet that make the angle between the roller mouse device and your keyboard be nice and flat.

The one I purchased was Contour’s Roller Re:d (sic on the cutesy spelling).

Contour warns customers that there’s a bit of a learning curve, and they aren’t wrong.  You have to retrain your hands.  But it didn’t take me very long to fall in love with this device.

I now get my work done with blazing speed and no pain. 

I have one piece of bad news to report.  The cost is a bit jaw-dropping:  $265.  Yep, that’s not a misprint.  Even worse, I’ll probably need to get two of them, so I can have one at work and one at home.

But What About Gaming?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.  When I began to get scared about my Ulnar Compression, I took a break from PC gaming and eventually from console gaming as well.  (What helped me keep my sanity – gaming on my shiny new Nexus 10 Tablet – will be the subject of an upcoming column.)

I am confident that I will be able to do non-competitive adventure gaming with the roller mouse.  It remains to be seen whether it’ll be effective for things like World of Warcraft or fast-moving RPGs.  Like I said, I promise to report back on how that goes.

For those of you who are gagging on the spendy price tag:  I don’t blame you.  Contour recognizes it’s a painful amount as well, and so they offer this deal of sending it to you for 30 days so you can see if you like it or not before you pay for it. 

Will this kind of mouse alternative work for you?  I can’t say.  But it certainly seems to be saving my poor hands.  I’ve even begun to cautiously add short sessions of PS3 gaming back into my schedule, and my hands are, well, handling it just fine.

Ulnar Compression is the name of my Rob Zombie tribute band

So my best advice to you is:  Don’t ignore hand, wrist or shoulder pain when you game!  Nike is wrong.  Just DON’T do it.  Research, experiment, and find ways to be able to keep gaming in your life while staying physically whole.

Because giving up gaming would be RIDICULOUS and UNACCEPTABLE.

Ray Ivey

Ray Ivey

A gaming freakazoid, Ray enjoys games on all platforms. Also loves board games, mind games, and all puzzles. Co-wrote the Entertainment Tonight trivia game and designed puzzles for two Law & Order PC games. Also a movie freak, bookworm, and travel bug. Thinks games of all kinds are a highly underappreciated force for social good, not to mention mental and psychological health.   Ray's favorite adventures include the "Broken Sword" and "Journeyman Project" franchises, "The Dark Eye," "The Feeble Files," "Sanitarium," "Limbo," "Machinarium," "Riven," "The Neverhood," and "Azrael's Tear." His favorite non-adventures include the "Thief," "Uncharted," and "Ratchet & Clank" franchises, all of the Bioware RPGs, Skyrim, and Final Fantasy XII.   Ray writes about the movies for the Bryan/College Station Daily Eagle, which is the old-fashioned thing called a "newspaper." He's been on eight game shows. He's taught in seven countries and has visited twenty-one. His favorite classic movie star is Barbara Stanwyck and his favorite novel is "The Hotel New Hampshire" by John Irving.

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