Can Texting Cause Pain?
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If you are an adult in the United States, chances are that you are spending more than 10 hours per day staring at a screen. This includes the time we spend each day focused on our smartphones, computers, tablets and in front of the television. This practice also extends to our current generation of children. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Study, kids ages 8-18 spend on average an astonishing 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen for entertainment not including computer time at school or home for educational purposes.
With this phenomenon of excessive screen time, however we are discovering there are musculoskeletal consequences to using electronic devices for hours on end. This is particularly true for the growing number of people shifting their screen time from television and desktop computers to smaller devices. Using a smartphone, laptop, or tablet almost inevitably leads to prolonged poor posture which in turn contributes to neck and back pain.
How does texting affect the neck? An average adult human head weighs between 10 and 12 pounds. As the head tilts downward, the neck’s muscles, tendons, and ligaments work to support the head. The neck’s intervertebral discs are also involved and help absorb and distribute forces exerted on the neck. Models have shown the strain on the neck increases with greater angles of head flexion with 15-20 degrees of flexion equating to 25 pounds of strain on the neck, 30 degrees to 40 pounds of strain, and 45 degrees to 50 pounds of strain! Notably a study on head flexion angle while using a smartphone found people typically maintain their necks at 33-45° of flexion and have even larger flexion angles while texting and also while seated.
In addition to increased stress on the neck, this flexed position of the head is associated with rounded shoulders which puts an additional strain on the upper back and shoulder girdle. The musculoskeletal effects of texting on mobile phones were described in a five-year longitudinal cohort study which followed 7,000 young adults. This study reported strong evidence that persistent neck and upper back pain are associated with time spent text messaging. There was also an association between reported shoulder pain and numbness and tingling in the hand or fingers in those subjects who spent the most time texting.
Low Back Pain
Poor posture while using your electronic device, particularly while seated, can also affect the lower back. How does this happen? In a landmark study by Dr Nachemson in the 1960s, measurements of intradiscal pressure in the lower lumbar discs were obtained in different body positions. It was reported that the load on the disc varied with the position of the subject’s body. Notably disc pressure is lowest when lying flat on your back at 25kg of pressure (based on a 70kg individual), whereas standing upright increases the force to 100 kg and sitting and leaning forward (i.e. slouching) increased the force to 185kg!
It follows that more pressure on the lumbar intervertebral disc with sitting and slouching can translate into increased low back pain. Notably this is the typical posture that most people adopt at work, slouching over their laptops or at home, hunched over their smartphones. If you assume this poor posture for a long period of time, it causes undue stress on the discs, joints, and ligaments of the lumbar spine. This can increase your predisposition to develop some of the more common causes of low back pain such as disc degeneration and herniated discs.
What is the Solution?
Fortunately, technology is not stagnant, and hopefully one day it will adapt to better align with our anatomy. Meanwhile, here are some simple, proactive measures to help protect your spine.
- Make sure you are sitting in a way that places as little stress on your spine as possible. Here is a simple way to sit with good posture.
- If you find it difficult to maintain a relaxed sitting posture, consider using a lumbar roll to decrease the stress on your lower back.
- Ensure that you have proper alignment of your chair, desk, monitor and keyboard at your worksite. Here are some tips for ergonomics in the office.
- If your work or school requires you to sit for large parts of the day, make sure to take regularly scheduled breaks to stand and stretch every 30 minutes.
- Consider using a standing desk to help relieve pressure on your lower back.
- Try Bruegger Exercise throughout the day which helps keep the spine straight, shoulders level and shoulder blades close together to relieve stress on your neck and upper back.
- Take a break from your electronics and get moving. Check out some tips for how to do this in our blog on the CDC requirements for exercise.
If you are still experiencing persistent neck or back pain despite making these adjustments, then contact our team at Desert Spine and Sports Physicians so that we can help guide you through a multi-disciplinary treatment program for your musculoskeletal pain or injury.