Is Technology A Pain in the Neck?

You never stop to think about it, but your neck carries around about 12 pounds of head weight. Now you’re thinking about it. That’s 12 pounds when your neck, or cervical spine, is in an upright, straight position. If you bend your neck forward and down, that weight begins to increase. At a 15-degree angle, this weight is about 27 pounds, at 30 degrees it’s 40 pounds, at 45 degrees it’s 49 pounds, and at 60 degrees it’s 60 pounds.

That’s the burden that comes with staring at a smartphone — the way millions do for hours every day, according to new research published in Surgical Technology International. Over time, researchers report, this poor posture, more frequently being referred to as "text neck,” can lead to early wear-and-tear on the spine and even more serious problems.

"Just look around you – and you’ll see people everywhere with their heads down looking at their phones, iPad or even laptops. It’s a very common problem that is contributing to problems that we are seeing in our office,” says Dr. Bill Lowry, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist with Center for Orthopaedics.

Smartphone users spend an average of two to four hours per day hunched over, reading e-mails, sending texts or checking social media sites. That’s 700 to 1,400 hours per year people are putting stress on their spines, according to the research. And teens might be the worst. The study found they potentially spend an additional 5,000 hours in this position.

Dr. Lowry says the symptoms associated with text neck are chronic headaches, neck pain, upper back pain, shoulder pain, increased curvature of the spine and early onset of arthritis. Young people could develop permanent damage to their spine, and research has shown that the prolonged poor posture that comes from the use of wireless devices can also reduce lung capacity by as much as 30 percent.

"Text neck does not occur only from texting,” says Dr. Lowry. "People have always looked down to read, but the problem with new technology is that we never look up. We go from texting to email to reading to watching a video to working and never look up. We can do everything we need to do, whether it’s work or entertainment -- or both – right there on the same device that we’re looking down at. Before you know it, you’ve had your head bent down at an angle over your device for literally hours. This happens day after day. Over time, that’s a lot of extra stress on your neck.

As with most overuse-type injuries, Dr. Lowry says prevention is key. "While it is nearly impossible to avoid the technology that cause these issues, you should make an effort to look at your phone and other devices at eye level, with a neutral, or straight, spine. Be conscious of how much time each day you are spending hunched over a device and try to minimize that time to minimize the potential damage.”

He also advices taking frequent breaks during your technology time, and moving your head from left to right, and rotation your shoulders back often to alleviate stress on the neck, shoulder and back muscles.

"Awareness of the problem will actually help a great deal,” says Dr. Lowry. "It is possible to take advantage of all the benefits technology offers without doing permanent damage in the process.”

For more information about any musculoskeletal problem, call Center for Orthopaedics, an affiliate of Imperial Health, at (337) 721-7236 or visit www.centerforortho.com.

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