They help us stay connected, find the nearest restaurant, stay abreast of weather conditions and give us directions, but can our smartphones and tablets also be a pain in the neck? As a matter of fact, they can – literally. “Smart Pain” or “Text Neck,” as it is sometimes called, is the result of the hunched over posture so common in someone who is texting, surfing the net or emailing on their smartphone.
The typical posture for smartphone use – head leaning forward, shoulders curved, arms bent by your side, hands outstretched forward, is extremely hard on your neck and spine. The average human head weighs 10 pounds when you are standing or sitting erectly. But for every inch you tilt your head forward, the pressure on your spine doubles. So if you are looking down at your smartphone in your lap, your neck is holding up what feels like, and exerts the stress of, 20 to 30 pounds. Depending on the amount of time you spend checking your handheld devices in an average day, this forward head posture can lead to muscle strain, disc herniation and pinched nerves. Over time it could even flatten or reverse the natural curve of your spine.
Well-Being spoke to David C. Collipp, M.D., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Doctor, at NewSouth NeuroSpine in Flowood and Chad Hosemann, M.D., Orthopaedic Surgeon of Capital Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, in Flowood, Madison, and Vicksburg about the kinds of symptoms they are beginning to see that can be attributed to the posture and repetitive motions of smartphone and tablet use.
According to Dr. Collipp, he is beginning to see more patients with complaints of neck, back and shoulder pain, who suspect their problems could be caused by smartphone use.
“To identify the source of the pain, we ask what activities the patient was engaged in prior to the onset of discomfort,” notes Collipp. “Once we have determined that it is likely caused by smartphone or tablet use, we treat it with a combination of physical therapy and behavior modification. Therapy can help the patient improve their posture and lessen the strain on the neck and back, but the first step is to make them aware of their poor posture so they can make a conscious effort to change. Physical therapy can also help strengthen their muscles to keep up the new posture.”
Collipp says that the average age person that he is seeing with “smart pain” is between 30 and 50 years old. So far it doesn’t seem to be having as dramatic an effect on younger people in their teens and early 20s.
“We don’t really know what will happen when today’s children and teens reach their 30s, but unless we start now making people aware of the potential for long-term damage to the neck and spine, we could be looking at serious problems for these young people in the future,” Collipp adds.
One way to mitigate the potential effect of ongoing smartphone and tablet use is by taking frequent breaks. Sitting up straight, pushing back the shoulders and turning the head from side to side to relax the muscles can help. Dr. Collipp recommends a one or two minute break every 15 – 30 minutes.
“If you take a break before you need it, you will get more benefit,” he explains. “If you wait until you are already having discomfort, you probably won’t feel much improvement, and the pain could get worse when you return to your task.”
Dr. Hosemann, who specializes in the treatment of hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders, hasn’t yet begun to see a large number of patients with pain that appears to be caused by smartphone use, such as texting and scrolling. However, he too is concerned that the few cases that he has seen are just the tip of the iceberg.
“I’ve had a couple of patients who complained of tendinitis of the thumb and wrist that improved when they quit texting,” Hosemann notes. “And I have read about some studies that are tracking the use of these devices to determine how it will affect the user and what they should do to prevent damage. We just don’t know yet what the long-term effects will be. Hopefully, the manufacturers of these devices will develop ways to encourage safer use of their products, even if it is just a reminder ding to let the person know it’s time for a break.”
Poor posture is not the only behavior putting smartphone users at risk. Smartphone use was blamed on a 13% increase in traffic related deaths in the first three months of 2014 over the previous year. Numbers are not in yet for 2015, but the trend is predicted to continue. Pedestrians listening to music, texting, talking or otherwise absorbed in their phones also are making themselves more vulnerable by tuning out traffic around them, experts say. While there is little hard data on the problem, safety experts say there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. Many say they think smartphone distractions are at least partly to blame for the rise in the number of pedestrian fatalities beginning in 2010 after years of holding steady or declining slightly.
As if all of this is not enough to make us take a hard look at our smartphone and tablet use, Dr. Collipp cited another negative effect our electronic devices can have on our bodies when we use them in the evening, especially for reading. The bright light of the devices can actually interrupt our sleep-wake cycle by reducing the melatonin in the brain. Poor sleep quality can make us feel sluggish, irritable and unable to focus. It can also cause weight gain, and on the more severe end of the scale, can result in depression and a higher risk of traffic accidents.
Our smartphones and tablets are amazing tools that can have a positive impact on our lives, but we need to be aware of the potential dangers and be smart about when, where and how often we use them.
David C. Collipp, M.D., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Doctor, received his Doctor of Medicine Degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN. He served his internship in the Department of Medicine SUNY – Buffalo Consortium, and his residency in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the State University of New York, VAMC, Buffalo, NY. Dr. Collipp is certified by the American Board of Physical Medicine &Rehabilitation.
Chad Hosemann, M.D., Orthopaedic Surgeon, received his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. He served his internship and residency in Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Alabama, Birmingham and completed a fellowship in Sports Medicine at Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center. Dr. Hosemann is Board Certified.