There has been much debate regarding the safety of cell phone use and electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation. Apart from those concerns, overuse of cell phones and other electronic devices like tablets are creating a wave of ergonomic injuries that are happening at younger ages. The problem is that using our phones and tablets for hours on end each day has become so habitual that most people have no idea of the damage they’re doing to their health until one day they get a real pain in the neck as a wakeup call. By then, the damage might be irreversible.
A Domino Effect of Damage
This new phenomenon of ergonomic injury from cell phone use is being called text neck. The term is used to describe the neck pain and long-term orthopedic and tissue damage sustained from looking down at a cell phone, tablet or other wireless device too frequently and for too long.
The body is made to move, bend, stretch, twist and reach in thousands of different ways throughout the day. It’s healthiest when it’s moving. When we force it to repeat the same kinds of motions over and over again or keep it locked into the same type of position for long periods of time, we cause extensive, unnecessary wear in certain parts of our body that begin to degenerate, causing injury. At the same time, other parts of the body in the area of the injury will try to compensate for that loss of ability. This only creates more unnecessary stress that leads to a cascade of orthopedic and tissue damage that physical therapists informally refer to as creep.
When standing upright, looking forward, the human head balanced evenly on top of the vertebrae weighs an average of 10-12 lbs. When the head tilts forward just 15o, the amount of pressure placed on the neck vertebrae and surrounding muscles increases to 27 lbs. At a 30o tilt, it increases to 40 lbs. At 60o, the angle most people use to look down at their cell phone, the pressure increases to 60 lbs. Imagine carrying a 60 lb. dumbbell around on the back of your head and the potential damaged that could do. It’s like trying to balance a bowling ball on the end of a thin tree branch. That’s the kind of chronic pressure we’re placing on our neck muscles, ligaments, and vertebrae when we repeatedly stare down at our cell phones throughout the day for hours on end.
It’s been estimated that people under 30 spend an average of 1,400 hours per year staring down at their phone with the classic 60o head tilt. For high school students, it’s estimated that they spend about 5,000 hours in this poor posture, placing an enormous amount of pressure on the cervical spine. A study from Baylor University showed that female college students spend about 10 hours per day looking down into their phones texting, shopping and using other forms of social media. College age males stare down into their phones with the same bad posture for about 8 hours per day doing utilitarian tasks and seeking entertainment. The insidious nature of ergonomic injuries is that because our behavior has become so unconscious, we usually don’t realize the damage is happening until it’s too late.
Habits & Hunchbacks
Holding the head in this unnatural position with 60 lbs. of pressure bearing down on the neck vertebrae for long periods of time causes irregular wear patterns that result in degeneration and eventually, bulging discs. Perhaps even worse is the damage this poor posture does to the neck ligaments over time. If you bend your right index finger back with your left hand as far as you can stand it and hold it there, you’ll begin to get an idea of what the stretched ligaments in your neck are experiencing while you’re texting away. When ligaments of the neck are over-stretched, they lose their ability to support the spine. That’s when deterioration begins that leads to things like arthritis and inflammation. Lacking this essential support, the spine can eventually freeze in its forward tilted position, resulting in the hunched posture often seen in many elderly people.
When we tilt our heads so far downward, it causes the chest cavity to collapse and the shoulders to fall forward. At the same time, this creates an unnatural, prolonged stretch of the muscles that stabilize the shoulder blades or scapulae, gradually weakening them, as well. Over time, these muscles become less capable of pulling the scapulae and shoulders back to keep the body and spine aligned in an upright position. This atrophy creates a gradual but permanent anterior tilt to the torso that results in a hunchback posture that freezes into place. It’s very possible that millennials and the younger generations, those who’ve never known a life without cell phones, will experience problems related to hunchback and vertebrae deterioration by their 50’s or earlier.
With the head tilted downward, the shoulders falling forward, and the chest tucked in, it’s impossible to draw a full breath. In fact, when we’re lost in our cell phones for hours on end, locked into this position, we reduce our lung capacity by 30%. This results in a 30% reduction in the amount of oxygen we can take in. That means the heart has to pump 30% harder to distribute more oxygen carrying blood throughout the body.
Try this. Stand up straight and take a deep breath down into the diaphragm, expanding as much as you possibly can. In doing this, you might experience some chest pain. That’s not because your lungs are about to burst, but because the intercostal muscles in your ribcage are atrophied. They can’t expand fully into an eccentric contraction because of your habitual, collapsed chest posture from looking down into your phone all the time.
Perhaps you’re experiencing lots of knots in your neck and upper back. Much of this has to do with weakened facet joints, which help the spine move from side to side. When they begin to deteriorate, the muscles of the neck and upper back often feel stiff because they now have to work harder to compensate for a weakening spine. It’s this state of being under constant contraction that gives many people the tension knots in their neck and upper back.
Let’s be honest. People are not going to give up their cell phones, even in the name of their health. In fact, in the Baylor University study, 60% of the college students surveyed admitted that they were most likely addicted to their cell phones. Be that as it may, there are several things we all can do to prevent being swept up in the cell phone ergonomic health crisis that is sure to get worse in the coming years.
- Reduce usage: Do your best to reduce the number of hours you’re on your cell phone. Even 2-3 hours less per day can go a long way to reducing the cumulative damage over time. Find out when it’s absolutely necessary for you to be on your phone and when it’s not.
- Change position: Old habits die hard, but try to change your posture while looking at your phone. Try to hold it up and out in front of you so your head stays more level without having to tilt downward so far. Think of the way a woman holds a compact to powder her face, while looking out in front of herself into the mirror on the underside of the lid. Even making this change for part of the time you’re using your phone can help.
- Home adjustments: Home computers can be just as harmful to health if they’re not set up in an ergonomic way. Adjust your monitor, desk and chair so that your head is in a neutral position and doesn’t need to tilt up or down to view the screen. It should be directly at eye level.
- Chin tuck: This simple exercise builds strength up behind the neck so that the spine can be pulled back into the proper position. Stand up looking straight ahead. With two fingers, gently try to push your chin directly back into your face. Be sure the head doesn’t tilt downward. Push straight back, not down. You should feel a stretch along the back of your neck. Do 4 sets of 15 each day.
- Shoulder pinches: Stand up straight. Pull your shoulders back, and extend your chest up and out while taking a deep breath. Hold this position for 2 seconds. Exhale. Do 4 sets of 15.
A little prevention can go a long way toward avoiding text neck and all the associated health problems that come with it. Soon these new healthy habits will be as automatic and unconscious as the old, damaging ones were, and your spine will thank you for it.
For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit beingclarity.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.