Top Five Health Risks that Gamers Need to Be Aware of (and the number one medical myth!)
For as long as I have been gaming, I have always despised the stereotype of gamers as hermits hiding in a basement in the dark, surrounded by empty pizza boxes and Mountain Dew cans. Gamers as a group are as diverse as the games we play and for every beer-guzzling, cigarette smoking sloth, there is also an Iron Man competitor or a champion rower among us. That said, the news has been abuzz of late with young boys hospitalized for dehydration after 4 day Call of Duty binges, as well as the seemingly ubiquitous news of another gamer slumping over dead in an internet café in Korea. Since the mission of GamerFitNation is to promote healthy life-styles among gamers, BlackBible asked me to weigh in on a few medical conditions that are likely to afflict gamers and what we can do to prevent them. What follows may pertain to none, some, or all of you, but please, remember that the best form of medicine is prevention.
1) Carpal Tunnel
Click, click, click. Diablo and Starcraft fans, listen up, as this one pertains more to the PC gamers than the console gamers. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition in which the median nerve which provides motor and sensory input to the first three fingers becomes entrapped under a fascial sheath at the wrist. Repetitive motion of the hand, particularly when the wrist is flexed, irritates the nerve and leads to paresthesias (tingling) and numbness of the hand. Treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome ranges from splinting at night for minor cases, all the way to surgical release of the fascial “tunnel” for the most severe cases. But the most important strategy is prevention. If you are dead set on working your way through Diablo 3’s Inferno and Nightmare difficulties, buy yourself a nice mouse pad with wrist support that extends your wrist. Take frequent gaming breaks to stretch and rotate your wrist and be sure to listen to your body’s signals and take a break if any discomfort sets in.
2) Obesity and Cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of Americans. When I was younger, gaming was more of a niche hobby, but now it’s as mainstream as going to the movies. What this means for you and your children is that cardiovascular disease is now also the number one killer of gamers. As a child, I can remember many an afternoon spent indoors with my games instead of playing basketball or even skateboarding with friends. While I have turned that pattern around as an adult, children in particular need to learn to be physically active at a young age. Games are an incredible intellectual and sensory stimulant for people of all ages. They foster creativity, eye hand coordination, and relieve stress, but the one thing they do not do is burn calories. Whether talking about yourself or your children, make sure to allocate at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular stimulation 3-5 times each week and by that I mean elevating your heart rate around 80% (usually around 120 beats per minute for most). Gamers are inclined to order pizza and Chinese food during a marathon session (I’m definitely guilty), so balance out these bad behaviors with alternating meals full of vegetables. A rule of thumb is that you should see at least five different colors on your plate. While there is nothing inherently wrong with stimulating your eyes and mind with gaming for a few hours each week, make sure you that you match it with activities that stimulate your heart.
Each of us has spent a few gaming sessions that we know could not have been good for us. Whether it is that Saturday where you played World of Warcraft for 10 hours straight, or staying up all night before work because you just had to see how Arkham City ended, the best video games can tickle that addictive nerve in a way few other hobbies can. But it is completely inexcusable and embarrassing to see our breathren being hospitalized or worse, dying at the keyboard because they are not listening to their body’s signals. If you ran 10 miles, you would obviously rehydrate yourself with Gatorade or water. While it may not be as obvious, we do lose water and calories while gaming. These insensible losses may not be accompanied by an elevate heart rate or burning muscles but they are real and they can hurt you if not attended to. Energy drinks and coffee are profoundly dehydrating and often compound the issue. Be sure to have a full thermos of water at your side. Take meal breaks and go for a walk outside to breath some fresh air before you start up that next Raid. There is simply no reason another gamer needs to make the headlines for catastrophically stupid negligence to their own well being. I expect the readers of GamerFitNation to be smarter than that.
I am not addressing this because I am buying into a stereo-type of all gamers as cigarette smokers, I am addressing it because it simply needs to be said to everyone. And for those fellow gamers among us who I see standing outside E3 or ComicCon sucking down cigarettes like they are French fries, I hope you are listening. Cigarette smoking is the single most terrible thing that mankind does to its body. In the United States, cigarette smoking causes approximately 90% of all lung cancers as reported by the Centers for Disease Control. As a surgeon, every time I have removed a cancerous lobe from a patient’s lung (or even the whole lung itself) I ask myself “why?” Here is a frightening fact for you: the 5 year survival rate of all stages of lung cancer is 15%. Put another way, 85% of all patients with lung cancer die within 5 years of their diagnosis. You do not need to be part of that statistic. Furthermore, smoking causes cancers other than just lung cancer. Smoking is associated with the development of cancers of the mouth, nose, throat, voicebox (larynx), esophagus, bladder, kidney, pancreas, cervix, stomach, blood, and bone marrow. If you are a smoker and you quit smoking now, your chance of developing cancer drops off precipitously (although never returns to the level of non-smokers.) If you are a gamer and someone sitting next you offers you a cigerette, just say no and take the opportunity to get in a headshot while they aren’t looking.
I saved this one for last because it is essentially the basis for all of the above. Gaming is addictive. There is simply no debating that. If you have ever sat down to play Civilization after dinner and barely noticed the next morning’s sun rising, you know what I’m talking about. With the prevalence of MMORPGs and competitive multiplayer, gaming is becoming more and more of a psychosocial health concern. That “just one more game” mentality that results in great review scores for a game, can also have dire consequences for work, relationships, and health (as described by the previous 4 items). While addiction can mean many things to a lot of different people, physicians define addiction by whether the behavior impairs the functions of daily life. Using a modified questionnaire with which alcoholism is screened for (the CAGE questionnaire, if anyone is interested), gamers should ask themselves the following:Have you ever felt you needed to cut down on your gaming? Have people annoyed you by criticizing your gaming? Have you ever felt guilty about gaming?
If your answer to 2 or more is yes, then you may have an element of gaming addiction. This is not meant to diagnose you as a gaming addict, but to make you consider the possibility and to adapt your lifestyle to be better balanced with respect to exercise, socializing with friends and family, or even reading a book (there’s a lot of good ones out there!)
Hopefully this article serves to get you thinking about your health and how you can be a healthier gamer. Gaming is a phenomenal hobby with a wealth of positive impacts for us (which is a whole other article in of itself), but as with anything good, it is important to be aware of its risks. And lest I leave you frightened to ever touch a controller again, without further ado, the number one Medical Myth about Gaming is:
Despite what your mother says, gaming does not negatively affect your eye-sight. There is no meaningful evidence to say this is true, so game on!