There are a lot of great things about gaming. It’s an excellent way to have fun with friends, channel your competitive energy into something positive, and just relax. If you love playing as much as I do, sometimes your “quick gaming breaks” can turn into multi-hour marathons. While there’s nothing wrong with playing for a long time if you’re having fun, it’s incredibly important that you listen to your body and mind while you’re playing. If your eyes start to get tired and sore while playing, take a break. If you’re starting to feel bored, frustrated, or upset, maybe it’s time to put down the controller for a little while. When I began to get thumb and wrist pain while playing, I ignored it and tried to power through. That ended up being terrible decision that caused me a world of hurt, both physical and mental. Read on to learn from my mistakes.
There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Overwatch- Right?
When Overwatch first came out in 2016, I was head-over-heels in love. I played for hours and hours a day (and made my partner do the same thing). I couldn’t get enough of the colorful characters, beautiful maps, and fast gameplay; it quickly became my favorite way to relax after class. I played on PC, but unlike most PC players, I used a USB controller instead of a mouse and keyboard. At the time, I was fairly new to mice and keyboards – controllers felt more intuitive to me, having grown up with Nintendo consoles and their, well, unique control schemes. A year or two after I’d been playing with a controller, I came across a forum discussion that talked about how pro Overwatch players were lowering their in-game sensitivity to ridiculous levels in order to improve their aim. Wanting to get better – yes, ELO hell is absolutely a thing – I went into my controller settings and turned the thumb stick sensitivity to extremely low levels. At the time, I had no idea that they were referring to mouse sensitivity, not controller sensitivity.
A few days later, I was playing with some friends in the evening when the area beneath my thumb began to hurt. I’d gotten sore muscles before, so I ignored it and kept playing. With every match that we played, the pain became worse. I eventually bowed out of the party for the night, thinking that it was a temporary injury and that it would get better in the morning. I didn’t realize that setting my sensitivity so low meant that my thumb had to make much larger motions on the control stick to get the same amount of character and camera movement that I’d had on higher sensitivities. When I came back to play the next day, my thumb began to hurt much more quickly than it did the night before. Concerned and frustrated, I stretched my hand a little and turned my sensitivity back up, then jumped into another match. It didn’t help – the pain was still there, even when I wasn’t playing. Now I was freaked out.
As I would learn later, human hands aren’t meant to make such tiny, repetitive gestures that frequently – that’s why issues like carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis are so common among esports athletes. We just aren’t designed to make motions that small for a long period of time. Extending my thumb as far as I did while my sensitivity was low caused me to stretch and damage the muscles in the base of my thumb. Not only did I damage it, but I ignored its symptoms, attempting to play through the pain. While simply toughing things out can be a good strategy in other areas of life, it’s not always a good idea when you’re dealing with physical pain. The morning after my frustrating attempt to keep playing, I put the cherry on top of the whole thing by applying a heat pack to my thumb muscle. For the first 48 hours or so after you damage a muscle, only cold should be applied – heat can actually make the strain worse. After the muscle has settled, heat can be applied to soothe the pain that’s left. I’d unknowingly messed myself up by trying to do something good without doing my research first.
A World Of Hurt
After heat didn’t make my thumb feel any better, I told myself I’d take a break for a day or two and let my hand rest. When you’re used to gaming as much as I am, though, that’s easier said than done. I watched longingly from the sofa as my sister played Breath of the Wild, wishing that I was the one playing. I tried to get my Overwatch fix by watching Twitch, but that just gave me the same feeling. My partner suggested that I try a mouse-and-keyboard game like Heroes of the Storm, since not using a controller seemed to be a little easier on my thumbs. I turned up my nose at him and said I only wanted to play the best. (Which is hilarious, considering that I’ve now played for two Heroes of the Storm teams.) After two days had passed and the pain felt less constant, I practically ran to my PC and booted up Overwatch. I played one competitive match, hoping beyond hope that I could get through without– nope. Still pain, and even worse this time. It felt like my thumb was yelling at me.
This pain ended up going on for six months. Yep, six months. That’s six months where I could only play a round or two at a time without pain, six months where I tried to learn how to play with a mouse and keyboard to much frustration and no avail, and six months where my only option was to play things that weren’t Overwatch. Over this time, I saw two different doctors, both of whom told me to just chill for a while and rest my thumb. No gamer wants to be told that they can’t play – it’s the same as telling anyone who loves their hobby that they can’t practice it. I also learned that texting and using my phone a lot was only making the problem worse, as typing on that tiny keyboard and scrolling for hours has a similar effect on thumbs. It’s another tiny motion that our hands aren’t really made to make. I was in a long-distance relationship at the time, so my only options for talking to my partner were texting or voice chat while we played games. Talking on Discord while I stared at my desktop background just didn’t have the same pizzazz.
As impatient as I was, the doctors were right: the only thing that fixed it was time. Eventually I found that I was able to play for longer amounts of time and through more matches, and the constant pain subsided. Having not really been able to play Overwatch during that time, I drifted away from it and found comfort in other titles. I suppose a positive effect that came out of the whole situation was that I discovered Heroes of the Storm, another great Blizzard title, which ended up giving me a lot of friends and fun experiences. I’d also learned a lot about the way hands and thumbs work and the proper way to treat injured muscles. Even so, there’s no way I was planning on repeating that situation again – I’d shelved my USB controller entirely and was bent on playing with a mouse and keyboard when I could. It’s too bad, then, that a similar situation happened not too long after this mess concluded.
Pain 2: Electric Boogaloo
A year or two later, I’d graduated and started working in writing and games. I was typing for hours on end most days; even though it was work that I enjoyed, it was hard on my wrists and hands. I’d also joined a competitive Heroes of the Storm team a few months before graduation and kept playing with them afterward. We practiced most nights of the week, which meant that I typed all day and played all night. Sounds like a dream, right? (For me, at least.) Well, it was – until my wrists started becoming sore and tender while typing and playing.
After having gone through the thumb pain situation, I knew that I didn’t want to mess things up a second time. There was no way I was going to go through another months-long ordeal where I just sat around and waited for time to work its healing magic. The stakes were also higher this time around: if I couldn’t use my mouse and keyboard, I wouldn’t be able to do my work or practice with the team. I was worried that the things I enjoyed were going to be taken away from me again. In a monumental effort to avoid all of that pain, I did a ton of research on what was going on and what I could do to make things better. I talked to my partner, whose dad is a martial arts instructor, about stretches and ways to relieve pain. I invested in a mousepad wrist rest that relieved pressure on my wrists by making sure that my hand was level with my mouse. I also discovered some wrist skins that kept my wrists steady and reduced motion, which in turn reduced the amount of pain that came from moving sore muscles. That’s how I discovered Ritual Motion!
Because I took the time to do things right the second time around, I was able to keep working and playing without compromise. I listened to my body, did the appropriate research, found the tools I needed, and didn’t force myself to push through it. Within a few days of wearing the skins and using the wrist rest, my wrists felt much better and I could type and play for hours without pain. And hey, I ended up getting a gig out of the whole situation, too!
If you’ve been experiencing thumb and wrist pain – or any kind of pain, physical or mental – while gaming, don’t be like me in the first story. Listening to what your body is telling you, doing the right research, and talking to the right people can help you get back on your game fast without having to stop doing what you love. It can be hard to stop when you love to play, but a day or two of voluntary break right now might prevent six months of imperative break down the road. Do your research, talk to your friends and doctors, and figure out what works for you. Until human hands evolve in the future to accommodate perfect WASD finger placement or hyper-low-sensitivity controllers, we have to work with what we’ve got. We’re only given one body – use it right!