Cervical pain and Cell phones, continued

Previously, we discussed how repetitive cervical strain, which has been termed “text neck” in recent years, has become more of an issue. Just a few years ago, the phrase “text neck” was virtually unheard of. However, in reality, the issues with sustained and repetitive cervical flexion have been around for a very long time–they have just been given the fancy “text neck” moniker recently.

If we consider how common it is for teens, adolescents, and adults to spend several hours a day on the phone or send several thousand text messages a month, one can imagine that over the course of 20 years, the repetitive strain can lead to changes in the normal curvature of the spine. Beyond the musculoskeletal aches and pains associated with the change in spinal curvature, it can have further implications on lung capacity and create a greater workload on the cardiovascular system. Dr. Bolash of the Cleveland Clinic describes how the impaired lung capacity from sitting in a slumped posture restricts oxygen and causes the heart to work harder to distribute more oxygen-carrying blood through your body.

This is further highlighted when considering how similar forces occur with several other daily activities such as reading, writing, and meal preparation. Ultimately, some of these positions are not avoidable. The point to be made is to be more aware of our postures, avoid positions of undue stress and take proactive steps to strengthen and stabilize the muscles of the cervical spine.

We discussed how looking down while texting can equal upwards of 60 pounds of force to the cervical spine, which would be the equivalent of a 5 gallon jug of water hanging from your neck and then adding a 20 pound car tire hanging from that. (Here’s an abc news report on the issue). So the question now is what can we do to help prevent these degenerative structural changes in our neck due to repetitive overuse of our cellphones?

Let’s start with some of the easier fixes:

  • Limit your usage of cellphones and other electronics.
  • Bring the cell phone or tablet up to eye level during use; if reading use a book stand to elevate the book to eye level.
  • If you are sitting and must keep your phone down low, hinge more at your hips, keep your spine (back and neck) neutral and simply look down with your eyes
  • Utilize voice to text technology
  • Do strengthening and stretching exercises to target muscles of the cervical spine.
  • Visit a physical therapist to implement a more client-centered and extensive treatment plan. Remember that the same rules don’t apply to everyone. Each of us are at a different level of postural awareness, have different muscle imbalances, and varying levels of joint mobility. A physical therapist can help identify the appropriate program for you.

The key is prevention. Technology will continue to improve and make life easier than ever before. When I was in school, the teacher would always say to the class “you won’t have a calculator everywhere you go, so you need to learn how to do this!” Funny how that worked out! 10 years ago, I never would have thought to be able to read a 300 page novel on a 4.5 inch iPhone screen, but the option is now available. Technology will keep changing, its up to us to make sure we use these new conveniences in a safe and comfortable way. 

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The Truth About Text Neck Syndrome

“The human head weighs 8 pounds!”

Remember that quote from the movie Jerry Maguire? 

In all actuality, the human head weighs closer to 12 pounds—and even then, that is only true when the neck is at neutral (i.e. looking straight ahead). So why does any of this matter?

Well, take a moment and look around. Everybody has their heads down! Texting. Sending emails. Browsing the internet. The ever-increasing access to technology, more specifically smart phones, has undoubtedly simplified our life. But it also comes with some major negative side-effects. And I’m not talking about cell phones, radiation, and cancer risks—that’s a whole different topic, and one, that I frankly don’t know enough (or really anything) about!

However, what I do want to discuss is the alarming amount of stresses that are impacted upon our cervical spine, ligaments, muscles, and nerves when you are flexing your neck down to use a smartphone. As mentioned above, the human head weighs 12 pounds at neutral, 27 pounds when flexed down 15 degrees, 40 pounds when flexed down 30 degrees, 49 pounds when flexed down 45 degrees, and 60 pounds when flexed 60 degrees! Think about that—60 pounds of force is more than a 5 gallon jug of water hanging from your neck! In fact, it would be a 5 gallon jug of water hanging from your neck…and then adding a car tire to that water jug. If you think like I do, that should freak you out. If you don’t think like I do, maybe you should consider the advice of Kenneth K. Hansraj, M.D., the Chief of Spine Surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine who recently published a short study entitled: “Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head.”

In the study, Dr. Hansraj discusses that “text-neck” (not to be confused with the similarly painful ailment, shoe-shine neck) has become a current epidemic and will have a more profound impact going forward. So what’s the end result if we stay flexed down and glued to our cell phones, creating a force of nearly 60 pounds of force on an area intended to withstand roughly 10-12 pounds of force? Well for starters, a whole lot of neck pain, which will keep physical therapists like me busy for a very, very long time. But just calling it neck pain is way too simplistic. It’s not only the neck pain, but rather, the constant stress, repetitive strain, and shearing against your vertebrae, muscles, ligaments that can lead to a loss of normal cervical spine curvature, increased laxity of ligaments, cervical disc herniations, nerve irritations, and changes in quality of muscle tissue—whether that be short and tight, in spasm, or the development of trigger points causing a referred pain to other areas of the body. Not to mention a progressive rounding of your thoracic spine with the shoulders rolling forward.

Here’s some insight, for much of the population, curvature of the upper back tends to increase with age…let’s not do anything to help it happen much quicker! In my next post, I’ll provide helpful hints on a safer way to use your phone and how to avoid neck pain from “text-neck”

These are just my “2 cents,” let’s hear yours.