When discussing the field of sports medicine, it’s been about broken bones, concussions, strains, sprains, tears and the like, resulting from games and practices, sometimes from contact, sometimes overuse. But as esports have grown, repetitive strain injuries (RSIs)–limb disorders like tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel syndrome–heretofore associated with office workers, plumbers and others who perform repetitive activities, have crept into the sports medicine world.
According to researchers in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, as competition in esports becomes more fierce, the field of sports medicine needs to catch up in order to address these players’ particular needs. Colleges across the country (approximately 80 at a recent count) are adding esports programs and competitive spaces, and leagues like the NBA have been ahead of a curve in this fast-growing area that is making stars out of former couch potatoes.
“Given esports are played while sitting, you’d think it would be literally impossible to get injured,” says Hallie Zwibel, DO, director of sports medicine at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, who also oversees NYIT’s Center for eSports Medicine, and is co-author on this study. “The truth is they suffer over-use injuries like any other athlete but also significant health concerns from the sedentary nature of the sport.”
And it’s not just video games. The authors of the JAOA study note that multiple health issues including blurred vision from excessive screen time, neck and back pain from poor posture, carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive motion, metabolic dysregulation from prolonged sitting and high consumption of caffeine and sugar, and depression and anxiety resulting from internet gaming disorder.
The huge growth in esports, which sees these athletes practicing up to 10 hours a day, with approximately 500-600 action moves per minute, is manifesting itself in eye fatigue, neck and back pain, wrist pain and hand pain among the main maladies.
“We’re really just now realizing how physically and mentally demanding esports can be,” says Dr. Zwibel. “Like any other college- or pro-level athlete, they need trainers, physical therapists and physicians to help them optimize their performance and maintain long-term health.”
At the professional level, the global esports industry earned more than $1 billion in 2019, with an audience of nearly 500 million. And showing no signs of slowing down.
“It’s safe to say esports is no longer in its nascent stages,” says Dr. Zwibel. “It’s world-class competition and serious business. It’s time we in sports medicine give these athletes the supports we know they need.”