The usage of mobile devices continues to grow. Every year the smartphone becomes easier and more enticing to use. Recent statistics show that just over 77 per cent of all adults aged 18-75 now use a smartphone daily. In 2017, Millennial internet users worldwide spent an average of 223 minutes per day on mobile devices, a strong increase from the 188 daily minutes in 2016¹.
In this article we will look at the effects these intensely used devices are having on your body mechanics and musculoskeletal health, in particular tech neck, texting thumb and mobile phone elbow.
Whether you are typing, swiping or tapping, smartphones are causing increased stress on an array of muscles, nerves and tendons. These movements may seem minor but they can cause serious injury when done repeatedly and with force.
Tech neck or hunched back
Research published by Kenneth Hansraj in the National Library of Medicine showed how the use of mobile devices and looking down at your smartphone for too long and too frequently contributes to poor posture and neck strain sometimes called tech neck. Your head weighs about 12 pounds and as your neck bends forward and down, the weight on your cervical spine begins to increase. At a 15-degree angle, this weight is about 27 pounds and at 60 degrees it’s 60 pounds, a similar weight to carrying an eight-year-old child around your neck.
As you tilt your head, you round your shoulders, and this is another aspect of poor posture. All this excess strain creates pain and inflammation, extra wear and tear on the structures of your neck, upper spine and back such as muscle strain, pinched nerves, herniated disks, and can lead to early spinal degeneration that may even require surgery.
It’s advisable to become ergonomically educated to improve your neck posture. This can include: looking at your phones with a neutral spine, holding your phone as close to eye-level as possible, and not bending your neck and hunching over. Upper back, neck and rear shoulder strengthening exercises, chest stretches and neck posture drills will also help improve your posture and reduce tech neck.
With texting, sending emails and video gaming we give our hands a workout without realising. Texting thumb is caused by joint or tendon problems that develop or worsen after repetitive smartphone usage.
There have been a number of studies that have found that high smartphone usage increases the likelihood of impaired hand function, thumb pain, discomfort, pain and repetitive-strain injuries. People get carried away texting or gaming and often don’t notice their pain enough to stop before continuing for too long.
Frequent texters may develop trigger thumb, where a flexor tendon in your thumb is restricted, due to repetitive gripping such as texting or holding a smartphone. It can result in painful popping or snapping when you bend and straighten your thumb; sometimes your thumb even becomes locked in a curled position.
Thumb arthritis where your thumb connects to your wrist, is the other condition sometimes called texting thumb.
Treatment for texting thumb may include anti-inflammatories, heat or cold packs, splints and braces, physiotherapy, steroid injections or surgery.
If you find you are developing texting thumb it may be advisable to change the way you use your smartphone, such as swapping over hands to hold your phone, typing your messages with your fingers too, using voice recognition and sending voice messages, and making phone calls instead. And don’t forget to take breaks!
Mobile phone elbow
Elbows can also suffer from holding a phone to your ear for too long, resting your elbow on a desk, or keeping your arm bent at an acute angle to look at your smartphone These positions can contribute to a nerve compression syndrome called cubital tunnel syndrome where there is increased tension in the tunnel through which your ulnar nerve passes at your elbow.
Cubital tunnel syndrome causes numbness, pain and tingling that runs up the outside edge of your arm excluding your wrist.
You can help prevent cubital tunnel syndrome by not flexing your elbow as often, switching hands frequently and using hands-free options on your phone.