In so many ways, our smartphones make elements of our lives easier and more convenient, putting the world at our fingertips at a moment’s notice.
But as we turn to our phones more often to connect, learn about the world and simply occupy downtime, physical therapists and physicians warn that these technological tools have a downside: neck, shoulder and back pain, along with other related musculoskeletal ailments, from the continued long-term bending of the neck to view the screen of the phone.
Known as “text neck” or “iPosture,” it’s a condition that’s effecting people at a young age.
“Typically, incidence of next pain increases with age,” said Robert Bolash, M.D., a pain specialist with the Cleveland Clinic. “But today, we’re seeing and treating more patients – younger patients – who never reported back pain before.”
According to recent studies, the average person in the U.S. spends 2.8 hours bent in the slouched stance many take while staring at the tiny to mid-sized screens of smartphones and tablets. It’s a posture that’s taking its toll, Bolash said.
“Neck muscles, in their proper position, are designed to support the weight of your head, about 10 to 12 pounds,” he said. “Research shows that for every inch you drop your head forward, you double the load on those muscles. Looking down at your smartphone, with your chin to your chest, can put about 60 pounds of force on your neck.”
That’s excess strain about the cervical spine over hundreds of hours a year. This, say physicians and physical therapists alike, can cause head pain, neck pain, pain in the arms, and even numbness.
Such strain can carry over into your everyday posture as you sit, stand, work and exercise. It can also lead to disc degeneration, herniation, osteoarthritis, and the rounding of the shoulders.
“Loss of the natural curve of the cervical spine leads to incrementally increased stresses about the cervical spine,” stated Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, in a study that was published in Surgical Technology International. “These stresses may lead to early wear, tear, degeneration and possibly surgeries.”
That’s why it’s suggested that those experiencing such pain and discomfort over a period of time should be evaluated by a licensed physical therapist. As specialists in strength and movement, a physical therapist can identify musculoskeletal weaknesses and work to help you achieve better balance and posture within your routine.
In this spirit – and since smartphones and tablets won’t be going away anytime soon – experts offer the following advice for preventing pain and injury when making use of such technologies:
The eyes have it. When looking at and using your smartphone, always hold it up to eye level. By preventing the need the tilt your head forward, you’re choosing not to put additional strain on the spine.
Keep the chin in. Jutting your chin out toward your phone, which is common when using such a device, you’re also adding strain to the neck and shoulders. So keep your chin up … and in.
Stand a little help. If you often use a larger tablet, laptop or hybrid of the two, don’t hold it up to eye level. Use a stand to do the lifting for you.
To learn more about posture and to get an assessment of your own posture habits, contact your local physical therapist.