Tech-Savvy Patients Present with Modern-day Ailments

How do you code BlackBerry thumb? How about cell phone elbow or computer vision syndrome? You won’t find these specific diagnoses in the ICD-9-CM code book, but they’re real and doctors are seeing more and more patients presenting with telltale symptoms, American Medical News reports.

Electronic devices such as computers, cell phones, and MP3 players have been around for a while but their popularity is on the rise. According to research firm The Nielsen Company, as of November 2009, 57.7 percent of U.S. adults had two or more computers and 63.3 percent of people actively used the Internet. Cell phones have caught on even faster. The number of Americans using cell phones more than doubled from 109.5 million in 2000 to 285.6 million in 2009, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association. And personal-listening devices have exploded in popularity from 18.3 percent to 76.4 percent between 2001 and 2008, according to a study published online Sept. 1 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Not surprisingly, physicians are seeing more patients with complaints of dry and burning eyes (computer vision syndrome), thumb pain (BlackBerry thumb) and aching, burning, numbness, or tingling in the forearm and hand (cell phone elbow). High-frequency hearing loss among adolescents is also on the rise—nearly doubling among 8,170 female teens between 1985 and 2008, according to the online study.

The conditions may be new, but the ailments certainly are not. A complaint of dry and burning eyes, for example, could be a symptom of dry eye syndrome (375.15 Tear film insufficiency, unspecified). Thus, correctly diagnosing patients can be challenging. New York ophthalmologist Roy Chuck, MD, PhD, recommends that physicians ask patients who present tired, rubbing their eyes, and complaining about vision problems how many hours a day they spend using a computer or handheld device.

Direct questions about technology usage can help physicians decipher the differences between diseases they’re accustomed to seeing, such as 354.0 Carpel tunnel syndrome, verses new diseases they’re now seeing, such as cell phone elbow.

American Medical News has more on this story.

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