Mobile phone and handheld device-related injuries are on the rise as people spend more and more time with their heads buried into their personal devices texting, tweeting, e-mailing and surfing the Internet. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the United States, the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) of hand, wrist, forearm, arm and neck has been increasing all over the world because of the prolonged, forceful, low-amplitude, repetitive use of our hand-held devices.
"Text neck," a MSD of the neck and upper back, was virtually unheard of a few years ago. It has now become a common presentation in chiropractic and physiotherapy clinics for people of all ages from Pokemon Go enthusiasts to multitasking professionals. Typically, the incidence of neck pain increases with age. We are now seeing and treating younger and younger patients who never reported neck pain before.
A 2014 study in the journal Surgical Technology International found that bending your head to look down at your mobile device can put up to 60 pounds of pressure on your spine. Even a 15-degree head tilt adds close to 27 pounds of pressure. This posture is not natural and tests the mechanical capacity of the spine while in a vulnerable position. With hours of the day being spent staring at a screen, the accumulation of the extra force can lead to irregular stresses on the spine and surrounding, supportive soft tissues.
Overused thumb injuries or "texting thumb" is another common, newer MSD on the rise. Our thumbs were not built for texting and repetitive swiping on such a small screen. Symptoms can include pain, burning, numbness, tingling and weakness in the affected area.
If you are an avid smartphone user, here are 10 ways you can reduce these types of injuries.
1. Alternate between using your thumbs and other fingers to type on your device. Whenever possible, use your fingers to type instead of your thumbs.
2. Place your phone down on a hard surface if you're texting, or hold the phone in one hand and text with the other, instead of using only one hand.
3. If using your thumbs to type, use the pad of your thumb, as opposed to the tip of the thumb, as this can create an awkward bent position which can lead to potential injury.
4. Keep your wrists relaxed and as straight as possible. Minimize the strain on your wrists, fingers and thumbs by using a neutral grip when holding your device.
5. Try to maintain the phone at your chest, chin or eye level to minimize the bend in your neck and to maintain optimal spinal posture. If your phone is below eye level, look down with your eyes rather than your neck.
6. Avoid using the phone to one side of the body with the neck rotated or cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder.
7. Purchase a protective case that reduces the need for grip strength when holding your device. Try using a hands-free headset, microphone and auxiliary cord to avoid awkward postures. When possible use a portable keyboard attachment.
8. Limit your device use to 20-minute sessions. Take a short device-free break in between these sessions.
9. Practice the 20-20-20 Rule to give your eyes a break. For every 20 minutes of screen time, take 20 seconds to look 20 feet ahead.
10. During the break, I also recommend you try these stretches to help you stay loose. Motion is lotion.
For your hand, fingers and thumb
- Curl your fingers and thumb into a tight fist then straighten your fingers as far as you can go without pain.
- Start with your fingers fully extended and together, now spread your fingers apart as far as you can go – again without pain.
- Move your thumb to each fingertip beginning with your index finger and finishing with your little finger.
- Hold your arm in front of you with your elbow extended, flex the wrist forward. Repeat with wrist extended. (Hold for 20 seconds on each side)
Use your hand to gently pull your head to the side and rotate your nose towards the same shoulder. (Hold for 20 seconds on each side)
- Roll the shoulders 10 times forward and 10 times backward.
- Perform 10 big-reaching shoulder circles with arms extended.
While portable devices offer us ongoing connectivity and convenience, we need to be aware that long-duration use can cause harm to the body. Preventing MSDs really requires a proactive approach. You may also want to visit the Ontario Chiropractic Association website for more stretching exercises.
Dr. Dwight Chapin, B.Sc(H)., D.C., is the clinic director of High Point Wellness Centre in Mississauga, team chiropractor for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts and on-site clinician for employees of The Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter @HighPtWellness.