Smartphone Use Causes New Modern Ailment: “Text Neck”

Looking down for too long sending text messages can cause strain to the head, neck, and shoulders. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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March 7, 2013 - 6:30am

Spending too much time on your smartphone or tablet computer can be a pain in the neck – literally. Looking down for too long sending text messages or reading a new e-book can cause strain to the head, neck, and shoulders. Ariana Brocious of NET News talks with Dr. Chris Cornett at the University of Nebraska Medical Center about this modern affliction. Cornett is an orthopedic surgeon and spine specialist. He says the new injury even a name: “text neck.”


NET NEWS: How do you diagnose someone with text neck?

CHRIS CORNETT: It’s basically based on their history, so anybody that’s complaining of postural neck pain, maybe even stress headaches or simply shoulder or muscle pain that is using these devices frequently and it seems to be a related phenomenon that they’re spending a lot of time in a certain position. So it’s mostly based on the history, there isn’t a specific diagnostic test or laboratory study or anything like that that you can do, it’s based on the description of the patient’s symptoms and their history of using these devices?

NET NEWS: And what are those symptoms?

CORNETT: Most people get either postural pain, and by that I mean aching, fatigue in the neck muscles. You can even get a sort of a chronic strain phenomenon. Usually the aching is in the back of the neck, sometimes they can get headaches. Rarely they can get pain further down into the shoulders but usually it doesn’t go beyond the shoulders into the arms.

Dr. Cornett suggested a few ways to help alleviate or avoid text neck (courtesy of UNMC):

  • Modify the position of the device- Instead of having the device in your lap or causing you to lean your head down, find a way to hold the device at a neutral, eye level.
  • Take breaks - Be aware that you're using these technology devices throughout the day and force yourself to take a break and to change or alter your position.
  • Physical fitness- Having a strong, flexible back and neck will help you deal with abnormal stresses and reduce musculoskeletal issues.

 

NET NEWS: When did you first start seeing patients with text neck?

CORNETT: I’ve seen people with this over the last few years but I think it’s becoming more common as people are becoming more reliant on these media devices and they’re spending a lot more time on these things.

NET NEWS: And that’s not limited to just smart phones, right? It probably applies to all the different new technologies we have at our fingertips—iPads, iPhones, Kindles, etc.

CORNETT: Right, any sort of newer media devices. And really, this is just a newer version of typist’s neck, or people who sit at their desk for long periods of time in a certain position. Certainly we see hairdressers that have a lot of postural pain, neck and shoulder pain in the way they hold their arms all day. So it’s just another method for us to hold ourselves in an abnormal position and cause some postural discomfort.

NET NEWS: In addition, some schools are now beginning to transition from printed text books to using iPads entirely. Do you think students could begin to experience more of these effects if they’re on iPads in class all day?

CORNETT: Yeah, I think they could, and certainly kids currently use a lot of these devices when they’re not in school, most of the time. So you could argue if they’re using them during school frequently that it would be even more important for them to take some measures to help prevent increased neck pain using these devices.

NET NEWS: So, is it something we should worry about? Can it do any lasting harm?

CORNETT: In general it’s more of a temporary phenomenon, where you experience postural neck pain, muscle strain, even muscle fatigue and some headaches. Usually those symptoms are fairly short lasting provided you change positions and aren’t in this position for a long period of time. What we don’t know, similar to other work-related injuries, is if you’re in this position for long periods of time and over a course of years, whether or not this could cause some increased strain on your disks or joints in your neck and predispose you to a disk herniation or arthritis. We don’t really know the answer to that, and it’s probably going to be a time-dose phenomenon where the more you use it, the more chance of those things happening. But right now it’s certainly not something dangerous in terms of any sort of neurological injury or anything dangerous like that.

NET NEWS: What can people do to avoid or minimize the discomfort from text neck?

CORNETT: I always tell people there are three main ways they can limit how much discomfort they can have form this. One would be to limit their use of those devices, meaning try to shorten the duration of time or take breaks frequently, and when you’re taking a break you change positions and stretch and things. The other would be to adjust how you’re using the device. A lot of these newer devices have stands or other gadgets you can use to make sure it’s at a good eye level, so you’re looking straight ahead and you’re not in an abnormal position. So you have to be aware of what position you’re in. And the last thing would be to also just stay in good physical shape, so people who are in a good aerobic conditioning and have strong, flexible spines tend to tolerate positions better than someone who’s out of shape.

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