Texting – A Real Pain in the Neck!

Texting- A real pain in the neck

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These days, everyone owns a cellphone. And, most of those phones are smartphones. As of this year, it is estimated that two thirds of Americans own a smartphone. As of 2012, it was estimated that the average smartphone user spends 2 hours per day using their phone, and about forty minutes per day typing messages on their phone! What may come as a surprise to you is that the age group who uses smartphones to send text messages (bbm, imessage, etc) is teenagers!!! In 2010, it was estimated that 13-17 year olds sent a staggering 3339 texts per month! And, not far behind is the 18-24 year old age group, sending 1630 texts per month! And, of those users in the 18-24 year old group, it is estimated that 80% of smartphone owners use them daily to send messages. Even though most of these statistics are a few years old, I think we can all agree they are probably fairly accurate, and the number of text messages sent per month has more than likely increased in all age groups. This is especially concerning, as we see smartphone users at younger and younger ages (think of the 3 year old using mommy or daddy’s smartphone as the family is out for dinner etc) whose spines and the supporting ligaments and muscles are still under developed.

Other than the sheer number of text messages sent, and the length of time we spend staring at our smartphones on a daily basis, why is texting such a concern?

people texting

Texting is such a concern for our musculoskeletal health because of the posture we find ourselves in. Take a look at the photo above! This scene is all TOO familiar! Almost everyone will unconsciously put themselves into this position as they are texting. Notice the head is flexed forward, elbows bent, and if you take a really close look you can see the wrists are deviated from a neutral position. This position, especially when sustained for a long period of time (which, for many people is a minimum of 2 hours per day), can create what we call ‘repetitive strain disorders’, which is an injury to a joint, muscle, ligament, or tendon that was likely created by maintaining a posture for too long. Our bodies were made to move, so by staying still we make our bodies susceptible to injury because the tissues of our bodies weren’t designed to take that sort of stress.

texting head

If just sustaining this forward flexed posture of the neck and upper back while texting wasn’t enough, we must also think about the weight of our head at each position! In a neutral spine position (think ears in line with the shoulder and hips), an adult head typically weighs 10-12lbs! But, thanks to the effects of gravity as we flex our neck forward, our head relatively weighs more. If you are to look down toward the ground as far as you can go, your head will weigh about 60lbs!!! Because of all the time we spend texting or looking at our phones in ‘text-posture’, this can add up to an extra 700-1400 hours of poor posture per year– that can all be attributed to texting alone! This is so significant because all these extra hours equate to extra stresses put on the neck- that ultimately may lead to neck pain, wear and tear on the bones of the neck, and potential degeneration of the joints in the neck.

So what is the bottom line? The more time you spend texting, particularly the more time you spend texting with poor posture, the more susceptible you are to developing a repetitive strain injury of the neck and/or upper back. And nobody likes a pain in the neck!

Now that we know what ‘text neck’ is, and the effects it can have on the muscles and joints of our upper body and neck, what are some ways we can reduce the strain on our bodies? I fully realize that giving up our smartphones is not an option (hey, I also have one, and yes I use it to text and email, and browse facebook- and I too would have a hard time giving it up completely). However, here are a few tips to reduce the strain on your body, and reduce the chance for developing significant neck, shoulder, or thumb pain in the future!

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  1. Type with two hands on the phone, with the phone in ‘portrait’ orientation. This reduces perceived fatigue and muscle activation in the arm and neck, and typically results in a more ergonomically desirable position of the arms, shoulder, and neck.
  2. Type with the screen at eye level. By bringing the screen up to eye-level or just below, you can reduce the amount you need to bend your neck forward in order to see the screen and type. Think about keeping your neck ‘neutral’- aka directly on top of the rest of your spine, with your shoulders relaxed in a ‘down and back’ position (think about gently squeezing the shoulder blades together, then down your spine towards your back pocket).
  3. Type with 2 thumbs, at a controlled pace. Typing with one hand increases the number of errors, and is overall slower. And, because of the number of errors, you are forced to spend time correcting those errors, meaning you are in the poor ‘text posture’ for longer.
  4. Keep your wrists ‘straight’. Try not to bend your wrist side to side or front and back as you are holding your phone. This can prevent excess strain on the wrist joint itself.
  5. If possible, use a ‘touch-screen’ instead of physical buttons. Now, I’m not saying you need to go and buy the latest iPhone ASAP (or smartphone of your choice with a touch-screen). But, next time you are due for a new phone, consider purchasing one with a touch screen, as it allows you to type with less pressure on the joints and muscles around the thumb. Sure, the screen might take a short while to get used to, but your thumbs will thank you!
  6. Consider using abbreviations. While anybody that knows me could appreciate that I prefer to type out all words in FULL, perhaps inserting a few abbreviations in your messaging could reduce the amount of time you spend texting- and the amount of time sustaining poor posture. My mom’s personal favourite is LMK- which means let me know, so I suppose I am giving her permission to use this abbreviation, however the abbreviation ‘plz’ instead of please is never acceptable. Moral of the story, use a few abbreviations, but don’t go overboard!
  7. Talk to people face to face! While this might not always be possible, having a real conversation with somebody in person is not only better for your spine, but far more fulfilling in many different ways! Instead of texting a friend who is in the same room as you, use your voice to communicate! And if possible, ask a friend to go for coffee or dinner or even an adult beverage so that you can connect with them in person- I think your spine and soul will thank you!

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Dr. Elaine Screaton (DC, BSc) is a Chiropractor currently practicing at Synergea Family Health Centre in Calgary, Alberta.

References

1. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/

2. Gustafsson, E., Thomee, S., Grimby-Ekman, A., & Hagberg, M. (2015). Texting on mobile phone and musculoskeletal symptoms. A 5 years cohort study. Proceedings 19th Triennial Congress of the IEA. doi:August 9-14 2015

3. Yoon, J., Yoon, T., & Cynn, H. (2013). Effect of Smartphone Typing on the Muscle Recruitment in Neck and Upper Extremity: A preliminary report.Korean Ergonomics Society Conference 2013.

4. Hansraj, K. K. (2014). Assessment of stresses in the cervical spine caused by posture and position of the head. Surgical technology international.

Gold, J. E., Driban, J. B., Thomas, N., Chakravarty, T., Channell, V., & Komaroff, E. (2012). Postures, typing strategies, and gender differences in mobile device usage: An observational study. Applied ergonomics, 43(2), 408-412.Texting – A real pain in the neck