Text Neck: A Real Pain in the Neck


Names like ‘text neck’ and ‘cellphone elbow’ might sound like the name of made-up conditions for a Saturday Night Live skit, but they are not. These conditions are real, painful, and becoming more prevalent, especially for our younger populations.

When the iPhone was released in 2007, the tech world changed. Apple was the first company to create the modern smartphone. Nearly a decade and over 2.5 billion users later, we are seeing the emergence of technology-caused digital disabilities.

People at coffee shop with smartphones and tablet

With more people using technology devices, we are seeing a trend of tech use-related injuries.

With more and more schools integrating new technologies into the classroom setting, we can only expect this problem to grow. However, it also opens up an opportunity for occupational therapists to work with schools and device manufacturers to try and curb the issue.

Two billion lab rats

Though cell phones have been around for over 30 years, when the smartphone became the way of communicating for and with nearly everyone, the game changed. About two-thirds of U.S. adults own a smartphone. For younger Americans, smartphone ownership is 86 percent.

With so many people adopting smartphones, we should have expected to see some ergonomic issues. A hard thin rectangle is probably not the best shape for excessive device use for anyone’s hand whether they are an adult or child. People reporting feeling discomfort in their hands after phone usage evidence that.

Woman with her head bent texting on smartphone

We spend a lot of time texting and scrolling on our phones to the point of pain and discomfort.

Think of this past decade as a giant tech experiment, and each every one of us has been a lab rat. We may not have known the severity of possible injuries from device usage, however, now that we are seeing the issues, it is the perfect time to make some changes.

Smartphone producers should consider working with occupational therapists to help design phones that are designed to avoid musculoskeletal injuries. It could be as simple as changing the placement of icons, or something as radical as changing the shape of the smartphone as we know it.

Digital disabilities

The way you use your devices as well as how often you use them will have an affect on your body. Avid smartphone users may find themselves with pain or discomfort in their neck, shoulder, back, hands, wrists and forearms.

Movements that may seem really minor, such as tapping, swiping, and typing, can actually cause major damage when they are done repeatedly. A 2015 study in the journal Muscle and Nerve found that college students with high smartphone usage are more likely than low users to experience impaired hand function and thumb pain, amongst other issues.

Text Neck

Animation of various tilt angles of text neck

Credit: Dr. Kenneth Hansraj/Surgical Technology International

Text neck is a phrase that is used to describe the neck pain or damage that occurs from looking down on your cellphone, tablet, or other wireless devices.

The average smartphone user is spending 2-4 hours per day hunched over. This means we’re spending 700-1,400 hours every year hunched over. This means that adults are spending anywhere from a month to two months per year hunched over scrolling through their phones.

For high schoolers, the numbers are even more shocking. They are spending anywhere from double to triple that amount of time on their phones, up to an additional 5,000 hours per year.

Straining our Spines

The average human head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds. However, it can be said that for every inch the head tilts forward, the pressure on the spine doubles. At a ‘text-tilt’ of 30 degrees, you are exerting a force of about 40 pounds.

Full scale of text neck tilts

Having your head tilted at a 60-degree angle is the equivalent to carrying the average 8-year-old on your spine.
Credit: Dr. Kenneth Hansraj/Surgical Technology International

The weight hangs off of the ligaments, muscles, and bones in the neck. When people tilt their heads to look at their phone for prolonged periods of time, it’s similar to bending a finger all the way back and holding it there for an hour.

Stretching the tissue for a long period of time makes it sore and inflamed leading to muscle strain, pinched nerves, and herniated disks. Over time, this positioning can remove the natural curve of the neck.

The Evolution of Man ending with man hunched over smartphone

Credit: David Horsey/Los Angeles Times

Poor posture can result from excessive use of our devices and lead to many other issues. It can be responsible for reduced lung capacity, headaches, neurological issues, heart disease and even depression. A constant poor position also causes chronic pain.

Save the Children

Our young digital natives are especially at risk. Not only are kids on various devices during their free time, the Department of Education is pushing for a higher use of technology in K-12 classrooms. In some areas, elementary age kids are already doing a significant amount of work on laptops and tablets.

Schools want more screen time for kids but there are no guidelines set to prevent future tech-caused injuries. While the immediate benefits of technology in the classroom are well known, the long term-effects of using tech, and what future digital disabilities will emerge are not.

multiple children in classroom using smartphones and tablets

Occupational therapists in the classroom can help students use devices in a way that does not result in future digital disabilities.

Occupational therapists in the classroom

Schools wishing to take a technology-forward approach to education should partner with occupational therapists. OTs have already been successful in classrooms, helping enhance students’ abilities to be successful in the classroom. They are valuable because they can offer tips and guidelines to help keep kids out of pain when using technology.

Some students (as well as adults) may experience headaches, neck pain, or eyestrain after using technology. Occupational therapists can make sure that kids have accessories they need to avoid discomfort and are taking breaks and incorporating physical movement during their school day.

Author: Allied Travel Careers

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