Part 1 of 2 in a series about self-management of injuries vs management by a medical professional.
When it comes to injuries in gaming, there’s a lot of confusion as to how to prevent and manage issues in the short term. This is a by-no-means-comprehensive guide to when to use various interventions to address gaming-related pain. All of these interventions are to manage symptoms, not to resolve causes. It’s impossible to permanently resolve symptoms without also addressing root causes (such as muscular strength and endurance). Long-term recovery and prevention must also involve training for muscular strength and endurance, but that’s outside of the scope of this article. For now, let’s look at some of the most common ways to deal with strain while gaming.
Ice is used to address pain. More specifically, ice is used to address pain associated with inflammation or swelling. Right after an injury, like spraining your ankle or banging your thumb with a hammer, inflammation serves a purpose. Inflammatory factors are involved in the killing off and clearing out of damaged tissue, which needs to be removed before repairs can occur. The problem with inflammation is when it lasts longer than the time period when it’s useful (typically, about 48-72 hours after injury). When inflammation becomes chronic, it inhibits healing and recovery, rather than promoting it. When that happens, ice is useful to reduce swelling. It decreases local bloodflow , helping to reduce the total amount of fluid in the area.
If you’re having pain beccause of inflammation or swelling, ice is the right choice. You don’t want to use heat, as that will increase bloodflow and result in more fluid, more inflammation, not less. Ice should be applied for 20 minutes continuously. There should always be something between the ice pack and your skin (like a paper towel). You should go through 4 phases of sensation: cold, aching, burning, and then numbness. It is ok and, in fact, normal, to feel some amount of discomfort while icing before achieving numbness.
Leaving ice on longer than 20 minutes or icing without something between the ice pack and skin can result in skin damage. Taking ice on and off repeatedly while icing will result in no useful or meaningful change in inflammation. You can use either real ice or an ice pack, as long as what you’re using is truly frozen (so no, cold water is not sufficient).
Heat is also used to address pain, but, as stated above, should not be used for inflammation-related pain. Heat is better for pain related to muscular tension or tightness, especially in conjunction with stretching or massage. Heat should only be applied for 10-15 minutes, and always with something between the heat source and your skin.
While handwarmers are portable and convenient, they’re not the best source of heat–they can be inconsistent in terms of temperature, they lose heat quickly, and they don’t always cover the necessary surface area. An electric heating pad with temperature controls or a microwaveable heat pack (clay/ceramic ones, as in the affiliate link below, hold heat particularly well) are better options.
(This particular pack can be used for both ice and heat; follow the manufacturer’s heating/cooling instructions for use)
Stretching is particularly effective when done in conjunction with heat. At the very least, stretching should never be done on cold muscles. You should always do something to warm up your muscles and increase bloodflow before stretching, either passively (with heat) or actively (with a mobility warmup).
Generally, when we talk about stretching in the context of gaming, we’re talking about static stretches–holding a position for a prolonged period of time. Static stretches should be held for at least 30-60 seconds without “pulsing” or “bouncing”; they should be sustained and steady. Stretches shouldn’t cause sharp pain or tingling/numbness, and what is “just enough” of a stretch for one person may be too much of a stretch for another person. On any given day, multiple factors play a role in how much is a sufficient stretch; you should never over-force a stretch.
Massage is particularly useful for muscles that it’s difficult to stretch, such as back muscles, wrist/finger extensor muscles in the forearm, and the palmar muscles of the thumb (thenar eminence). It can be difficult to massage your own muscles without stressing other muscles, so tools like foam rollers, trigger point canes, or even tennis balls can be useful.
Foam rollers are cylinders of dense foam that can be used to roll out tight muscles, as below.
The foam roller used in this video is here: A more compact version is here:
The foam roller is good for the larger muscles of the back, but less good for the upper back and neck muscles. For those, a trigger point cane or a tennis ball is a little easier to use.
A trigger point cane is a curved stick with protrusions that can be used to massage areas of tension. It’s designed specifically for trigger points, more colloquially known as muscle knots, but can also be used to massage tense muscles in general without requiring excessive work or force from other muscle groups.
A tennis ball is also a useful option, and one that’s slightly more portable for tournaments. Place the ball between your back and the wall, and use your own body weight to apply pressure. You can also use a tennis ball to massage your forearm or palm muscles; use small,slow circles. Be careful not to apply too much pressure to avoid bruising.
Baoding balls can also be used in place of a tennis ball for hand and forearm massage, as well as for hand strengthening exercises. However, you need to be even more careful with these, as the have significantly higher density than tennis balls and can more easily cause bruising.
- Ice: use for inflammation-related pain; 20 minutes continuously
- Heat: use for muscle tension-related pain; 10-15 minutes continuously
- Stretching: use for muscle tension after muscles are warmed up; hold 30-60 seconds
- Massage: use for muscle tension after muscles are warmed up; have care for bruising
Keep in mind that not all injuries can be managed or prevented without help from a medical professional. In the next piece in this two-part article series, I’ll go over when it’s appropriate to seek outside help. Stay tuned!
Disclaimer: The information provided here is made available for the sole purpose of providing general information about ergonomics. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any injuries, illnesses, or conditions, nor should it be interpreted as such. If you are experiencing pain, excessive fatigue, or other health issues, consult a medical professional in person. The information provided by the author and contained in this article does not serve or purport to serve as a substitute for the advice of a qualified practitioner.