Doctors feel phantom vibrations of phones, pagers

Dr. Walter Moore (right) talks with Georgia Health Sciences University residents Nick Fox (left) and David Oliver. Moore says he experiences phantom vibrations several times a day.

As medical residents at Georgia Health Sciences University, Dr. Marina Cheng and Dr. Christopher Hogan are used to feeling a vibration around their belts as their cell phones or pagers go off -- sometimes even without a call or page.

"My left leg, when I didn't have my cell phone and pager on, would vibrate," said Hogan, who used to wear them on the left hanging from his belt. "And I would go looking for my cell phone and it would be sitting beside me instead of actually on my thigh."

Cheng said she always feels the buzz in the same spot where she wears hers.

"It usually happens when I'm sitting down at my computer and I feel like there's something but there isn't," the fourth-year urology resident said. "I just felt like maybe it was a muscle twitch or something."

It's called phantom vibration syndrome, and it is more common than they knew.

A study published online in December in the journal BMJ of a survey of personnel at one medical center found 68 percent said they had felt it at one time, with 13 percent experiencing it on a daily basis.

It probably is a real sensation that the brain just gets wrong, said lead author Dr. Michael B. Rothberg, the director of scholarly activities for the residency program at Baystate Medical Center, part of Tufts University in Boston.

"If you think about it, you can feel your clothes touching you," he said. "But you don't want to be thinking about that all the time because then you wouldn't have room to process all of the other stuff. So your brain is filtering all of this information that comes up and most of it, it is saying, 'It's not important. Don't worry about it.'

"But if you are expecting something -- you are expecting a phone call, you are expecting a baby to be crying, you are expecting a pager to vibrate -- you are going to misinterpret things and think that they are that signal when they are actually something else."

In the study, the sensation was more likely to happen to those who were younger and those who were residents, as opposed to the faculty physicians.

"If an attending (physician) doesn't return a call right away, there are not a lot of repercussions because they have some seniority," said Dr. Eric Lewkowiez, a child psychiatrist at GHSU. "If a resident doesn't respond, all hell breaks loose.

"If they don't respond to pages and phone calls in a rapid fashion, we actually can cite them for unprofessional behavior," said Dr. Walter Moore, GHSU's senior associate dean for VA affairs and graduate medical education. He can sympathize with those getting the false signals because it happens to him.

It might happen more to younger folks because they are more prone to respond immediately to things, such as a text coming in, than older folks might be, Moore said. He has observed this in his children.

"They're immediately jumping on it to send something back to somebody," he said.

Hogan sounded relieved that it wasn't just happening to him.

"I didn't know anybody was studying it," he said." I thought I was just weird."

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