It seems like everywhere you look, people of all ages are looking down at their phones. They do it at home. At work. In school. In restaurants. While waiting for a train. Even while walking, driving and riding a bike. Concern about the pervasiveness of handheld devices exists for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the detrimental affect they have on the cervical spine of children and adults. Some call it Text Neck.
By some estimates, adults spend an average of five hours a day using a mobile phone or tablet, while teens report using their devices almost constantly throughout the day. As a result, more and more people are developing neck pain caused primarily by holding their heads in an abnormal way.
Consider this: A quick glance down at your phone adds about 20 pounds of unnatural force to the discs in your neck. That weight more than doubles when you are fully engaged with your device. Putting that stress on your cervical spine for hours a day, every day can accelerate the natural wear and tear on the cervical bones and discs.
Leaning your head forward also compresses and tightens the muscles in the front of your neck and lengthens the tendons, ligaments and muscles in the back of the neck. Over time, this can cause inflammation and weakness. Abnormal flexion can also be responsible for headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain and nerve-related symptoms such as radiating pain, tingling, numbness and/or burning in one or both arms. Your chances for disc herniation and early arthritis are also increased.
Growing children and teens can develop those problems too, but they have the additional risk for skeletal deformity. Studies have shown that over time, younger people who strain their neck muscles by holding their heads in a forward tilt for prolonged periods can develop an abnormal curvature in the upper back and neck. In one study, researchers in Australia noted the development of bone protrusions similar to horns in the connecting tendons at the back of the neck in young teens who had used phones and tablets since childhood. There’s a name for that too—Phone Bone.
Physical therapy and in some cases, surgery can help alleviate the symptoms brought on by the overuse of these devices, but there are other steps you can try before it gets to that point. Youngsters should be encouraged to partake in physical activities that help develop musculoskeletal strength and reduce time spent gaming and texting. People of all ages can engage in activities that promote good posture, such as yoga or Pilates. When possible, use a desktop or laptop with the screen at the ergonomically correct angle. Or try lifting your phone so you are holding your head properly on top of the spine. Long term, however, the solution is easier said than done. Look up from your device and notice what’s around you. The text can wait.