Nov. 26, 2014 -- Gift-buying season is here, and on top of the wish list for most people is the latest tech gadget or gizmo. But some experts are concerned that more tech may equal more pain for frequent users.
For starters, we take on “text neck” -- and yes, according to Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, it’s a real thing.
“We did a study on the issue of poor posture and how it affects you, especially when you’re on a cell phone or smart device,” says Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitative Medicine. “It’s a lot of load, an amazing amount of weight to be carrying around your neck.”
Just how much load does that constant downward-looking gaze put on the neck muscles?
“When your spine is in neutral position, the head weighs about 10-12 pounds,” he says. “At 15 degrees [forward], the neck sees 27 pounds. At 45 degrees, it sees 49 pounds, and at 60 degrees, it’s 60 pounds.”
That’s 60 pounds of weight stress on muscles and nerves that are meant to handle 10-12 pounds of stress, and that much load can do a lot of damage over time.
“When you have such aggressive stressors on the neck, you get wear and tear on the spine,” Hansraj says. “You can develop tears within the disc, or even get a slipped or herniated disc.”
The end result? “We’re seeing tons of patients who have neck pain, and really when you look at the MRIs, they are fairly normal,” he says. “When we straighten them up and get them some physical therapy, they do a lot better.”
Feeling the Crunch
Aletha Chappelear, DC, an Atlanta-area chiropractor, says she often sees patients with aches and pains that turn out to be related to their tech.
“We’re seeing it a lot, especially in teenagers and older adolescents,” she says. “We’re so into our electronic devices, and what we’re doing is holding the device at chest- or waist-level, and looking down at the device. It’s causing neck muscles to be shortened and tightened, and shoulders to be rounded forward.”
The upper part of the spine is normally curved, she says, to allow nerves plenty of space to pass through the neck and out into the body. But when you crunch that space down, it can cause major problems down the line.
“There is a big cluster of nerves in the area between the neck and the shoulder,” she says. “Any compression, irritation, misalignment, muscle spasms, or tension in this area can cause pain that spreads out all the way down to the fingers.”
Lying down with your head propped up at an awkward angle, and talking on the phone with the device pinned between your ear and your shoulder, are just as bad.
Any kind of neck, shoulder, or back pain requires some sort of attention, she says. You can:
- Stretch at home.
- Get a massage.
- See a chiropractor or physical therapist.
“If you’re not doing something consistently to reverse the amount of time you’re looking down, then you’re just going to make it worse,” she says.
On to the next area of concern. Heard of so-called “Blackberry thumb”? That's an injury you get from texting for hours with your thumbs. It can cause long-lasting damage as well.
The thumb isn't very nimble. "It is really designed as a stabilizer for pinch-gripping with a finger. That is why you only have two of them, not eight," says Alan Hedge, PhD, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University.
Repeated stress on delicate tendons in your wrist and thumb can lead to painful conditions like tendinitis.
Experts have written about cases of thumb problems and other tech-related issues in many journal articles, but relatively few studies have been done.
So what can you do about it? Hedge recommends you:
- Switch between using thumbs and forefingers to text.
- Use a voice-texting assistant.
- Use predictive text functions, which suggest words for you as you type on your phone.
You might also just make a phone call instead.
Advice for the Office
Whether or not you live on your phone, the way your work space is arranged might not be doing you any favors either, Chappelear says.
“Sitting at a desk, looking at the computer, writing papers, students sitting in school,” she says. “We’re basically taking that poor posture [we get from our phones] and making it even worse.”
Her suggestion is something she calls "desktop yoga."
“You’re sitting at your desk, you open your arms up as far as they will go, stretch your neck back, and look up as far as you can,” she says. “Anything you can do that opens up the distance between the chin and the chest, as well as the distance between the shoulders, will help tremendously.”
She also recommends you:
- Place your computer monitor directly in front of you, rather than off to the side.
- Walk once an hour while you’re at work.
- Stay hydrated.
“We are made up of about 75%-80% water, and that fluid creates lubrication, and helps us deliver nutrients in to -- and waste products out of -- our cells,” Chappelear says. “If you’re dehydrated, then the tissues are drier and stickier, so it allows all of the [muscles and nerves] to be more squished together.”
Speaking of staring at screens all day long, your eyes are getting a workout too -- and they can become exhausted.
Ophthalmologist Anne Sumers, MD, says she sees patients all day long who say they have trouble related to technology.
“It’s everybody! They come in complaining of eye strain while working on the computer, and what they mean is their eyes are irritated, their eyes are tired, they have blurry vision, and they have headaches,” she says.
The good news is that constantly staring at a screen isn’t causing permanent damage.
“Working on the computer doesn’t harm your eyes. There’s no harmful radiation or anything like that,” Sumers says. “What it does cause is eye strain, where your eyes feel tired and fatigued. These are temporary problems, and there’s a lot that can be done about them.”
The first step: Check your glasses.
“Make sure the glasses you’re wearing are appropriate for working on the computer,” she says. “A lot of time, all you need is a better pair of glasses.”
That means clean, unbroken lenses that are set for the distance you sit from your computer.
Dry eyes are also a common problem.
“When you’re concentrating, you don’t blink very much, so people's eyes dry out,” Sumers says. “Stop for a moment and just close your eyes for 30 seconds.”
You can also use a few drops of artificial tear solution.
And the biggest tip: Take a break!
“Do something slightly different after 45 minutes or an hour on the computer,” she says. “Looking at a distance of 50 feet for 20 or 30 seconds will relax your eyes again.”