Cuber’s Thumb: A uniquely 80s injury (1981)

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vector rubiks cube photo

Rubik’s Cube a pain in thumb, also

by Claudia Morain, Register Staff Writer

Madness may be but one risk for the country’s more than 10 million Rubik’s Cube owners.

The incredibly difficult puzzle — with 43 quintillion positions and only one solution — was reported Wednesday to cause physical as well as mental pain.

The report, from Dr Douglas Waugh of the Association of Canadian Medical Colleges in Ottawa, Canada, appears in a letter in this week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Cuber’s thumb,” Waugh writes, “is characterized by a localized, exquisitely tender swelling” of the palm surface of the lower joint of the left thumb.

He says the swelling and pain can be mistaken for gout, a form of arthritis, and goes on to describe how he came upon the Rubik’s Cube-related injury.

“My wife,” he wrote, “became so absorbed in a Rubik’s Cube that I gave her on her birthday last June that I went out and bought one for myself in self-defense.

“Hers was a top-of-the-line ‘racing cube’ costing about $12.50; it can be manipulated fairly easily and smoothly. Mine was made in Taiwan, cost about $7, and tends to stick when it’s pieces are rotated. Since I am right-handed, it is my practice to hold the cube in my left hand with one of its corners firmly braced against the base of my left thumb.

“My initial symptoms were sufficiently distressing to send me to my family physician, who tentatively agreed with my diagnosis of gout and started me on a treatment with phenylbutazone (an arthritis drug).

“The correct diagnosis was made a couple of days later when I picked up my cube and jammed it on a rotation, thrusting its corner against the painful metacarpal (joint). Treatment on an interim basis has consisted of swiping my wife’s racing cube. Long-term treatment will be the purchase of one of my own as soon as stocks are replenished at the local hobby shop.”

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Waugh could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the success of his self-prescribed treatment. His receptionist said he was home sick.

But Hal Levy predicts purchase of a new cube will cure the thumb. While not a physician, Levy is a spokesman for Ideal Toy Corp, which markets the Rubik’s Cube around the world.

“He never would have had the problem if he’d bought the original,” Levy said. (Far Eastern toy pirates, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, have sold millions of Hong Kong and Taiwanese-made imitations of the cube.)

Levy said he knows of no reports of “cuber’s FR (thumb)” to Ideal Toy Corp. He added there is no recommended way to hold the puzzle.

The history of the Rubik’s Cube

Invented by a Hungarian architect, Erno Rubik in 1974 and put on the Hungarian market in 1977, the Rubik’s Cube was first sold in the United States and other countries in 1980. The cube already has outsold all previous puzzles, becoming the most popular game of its kind in the history of the toy industry.

It is a box made up of 26 small, brightly-colored plastic boxes, each of which can be rotated and twisted through 360 degrees. The object is to scramble the cube and then restore it to its original state — a solid color on each of its six sides.

Arriving at the solution can require 80 to 100 or more twists and hundreds of hours. It took Rubik himself a month to arrive at the solution after he built his first rough model.

James Nourse, a Stanford University chemist and author of “The Simple Solution to Rubik’s Cube,” estimates only about 1 percent of the people who try, succeed in cracking the puzzle.

While Waugh is hopeful he has found the answer for relieving the pain in his thumb, he is less optimistic he will be able to eliminate the underlying cause of the injury.

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