Are your thumbs your most-used appendages? Do you spend hours hunched over your phone, sending texts, answering work emails and browsing social media sites? While modern technology has many benefits, it can also cause some serious health issues. Bending your head to look at your smartphone puts lots of extra stress on your spine and can result in permanent harm. Dr. Ranjana Mehta, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health and co-director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center, has conducted extensive research in the field of ergonomics, to find out more about the growing “text neck” epidemic.
“Text neck” is the term used to describe the overuse and fatigue of the neck muscles caused by the posture we adopt as we stare at our phones. Our heads weigh around 10-12 pounds in a neutral, upright position; however, as the head tilts forward to look down at a phone, the force that is acting on the neck muscles and vertebrae nearly doubles that amount. A recent study even found that when our heads are tilted forward by 60 degrees, it’s equal to 60 pounds weighing down on the spine.
While the head is angled forward, the ligaments and tendons in the neck and back become overstretched. This overexertion can lead to an inflammation of the muscles and can cause mild to severe neck and back pain.
There are increasing reports of “text neck” causing lower back pain, which is often chronic. Other, more severe, side effects can include herniated disks in the spine, which may require surgery. And the problem is even more profound in young adults, who spend more time with their heads buried in phones.
“The typical complaints from individuals with “text neck” are sore necks, shoulders, and upper and lower backs,” Dr. Mehta said. “Some people also get headaches from spending too many hours bent over their phone.”
The main way to prevent or alleviate neck pain caused by looking down is to be more cognizant of your posture. Being aware of how long you have been looking down can help you make more of an effort to correct your posture.
There’s a saying in ergonomics: “Your best posture is your next posture.” Movement is key. Continuously moving and changing your posture can help avoid overuse injuries like “text neck.”
“Now this doesn’t mean that you have to bring your smartphone up to eye level to see the device, just remember to look up every once in a while,” Dr. Mehta said. “Breaks are important; particularly to help overstretched muscles and connective tissues recover.”
There are apps you can use that record your device usage, which allow you to see how long you’ve spent on your phone. More importantly, there are interactive apps that remind you of excess screen time, some of which even have sensors—for example, Lumolift — that vibrate when you adopt poor posture.
Technology is a boon to society, but anything in excess can have negative health effects. In the end, continue to enjoy technology – just keep your head up, advises Dr. Mehta.