Health Insights column: Is your mobile device a pain in the neck? | VailDaily.com

Health Insights column: Is your mobile device a pain in the neck?

Erin Jones, DPT, COMT
Health Insights

Have you used a mobile phone, tablet, laptop, media player, e-reader or gaming device today? You may be joining the 53 percent of the population who develop neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, arm pain, numbness or tingling and headaches. The number of people between the ages of 16 and 24 developing neck and back pain has increased from 28 percent to 45 percent during the past year; there's a good possibility this has resulted from the increased use of mobile technology.

When you look down and lean in toward these devices, your head and neck move forward, your shoulders and upper back become more rounded and you also may hike your shoulders upward toward your ears. This causes increased shearing and compression on the discs and joints in your neck and upper back and also loads and stretches the ligaments, muscles and tendons supporting your head and neck. Some muscles shorten and become tighter, while other muscles may lengthen and weaken. These muscle imbalances can cause the problem to worsen if you don't intervene by correcting some of your postural habits.

Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation, found that while your head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds (similar to a bowling ball), the force on your neck increases three times for every 5 degrees your head tilts or leans forward. Therefore, if your head is tilting at a 30-degree angle, the load of your head is effectively 40 pounds, and if your head tilts at a 60-degree angle, the neck is working to support something comparable to 60 pounds (more like five bowling balls).

Long-term effects

The average neck angle when looking at a cell phone is about 45 degrees. If you consider a person may spend at least two to four hours per day working on a mobile device with this posture, then that equates to 700 to 1,400 hours per year with these extra forces going through your spine. Some researchers estimate high school students may spend more than 3,000 hours per year hunched over their mobile devices.

Long-term effects of these postural strains may include developing bone spurs along the vertebrae in the spine, osteoarthritis (break down of the cartilage along joint surfaces) and compression or possible herniation of the discs in the spine. All of these degenerative processes can lead to narrowing of the space where the nerves exit the spine, which may cause pain, numbness and tingling or weakness in the arms.

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Since the muscles are no longer working in their ideal positions or at their optimal length, muscle strain and spasm may develop. Headaches may occur when someone spends too much time in these positions. Research is also showing these forward head and rounded shoulder postures can negatively affect lung capacity.

How to Prevent Issues

Technology is here to stay, so what can we do to prevent these things from happening? If you use a tablet, laptop or desktop computer for school, work or leisure, then the screen should be high enough so you're looking straight ahead (eye level at the top 1⁄3 of the screen). The screen should also be close enough so you don't have to lean in to read it. Your ears should be in line with your shoulders if someone were looking at you from the side.

Armrests on the chair should support your forearms so they are parallel to the floor and the elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle. Low-back support is recommended so you maintain the natural slight arch through the lumbar spine. Your feet should rest flat on the floor with your knees sitting slightly lower than your hips.

Other ways to avoid this "tech neck" epidemic:

• If you've been sitting for 30 minutes, then check your posture and get up and move around for a couple of minutes with some intermittent stretching exercises (move your head and neck and focus on pulling your shoulder blades backward and downward) — you can set an alarm to remind you if you tend to get lost in your work.

• Consider a desk that allows you to alternately sit or stand throughout the day so you're not locked into one position for hours. An ergonomic assessment of your workstation by a professional may be beneficial.

• Download one of the apps available to alert you when you may be slouching (it alarms when the angle of your mobile device puts you at risk for these poor postures). You should be holding your phone up so you're looking straight ahead at it.

• Watch your kids and correct them. These habits start young, and their bodies are still developing. Physical therapists are seeing younger and younger patients with neck and back issues.

• Use voice recognition technology when it's available.

• If you use a phone more than one hour per day, then find a headset to use so you're not cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder.

Initially, these improved posture positions may be uncomfortable or you may fatigue quickly, but over time, your muscles will become stronger so that comfort will improve and you'll be able to maintain these positions with less effort. However, if these aches and pains still work their way into your life, then a physical therapist will be able to utilize some hands-on techniques and give you some specific exercises to resolve these issues.

A good rule of thumb is if your pain lasts longer than a week, then you will benefit from some outside intervention such as physical therapy.

Erin Jones is a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) and certified orthopedic manual therapist (COMT) at Jointworx Physical Therapy in Avon's Buck Creek Medical Plaza. She is available to help you with your postural aches and pains. Call 970-470-4023 to set up an appointment for treatment or to schedule a free 30-minute assessment.