PAIN
March 25, 2013

Huddled Masses, 21st Century Style

Sitting bent over a phone or tablet or laptop puts a huge strain on your neck. The pain has a name: text neck. What helps.

Mobile devices offer many benefits — better communication and health and news information at your fingertips, to name a couple. They can also be a pain in the neck — literally. “Text neck” is a growing medical problem.

As if cell phone elbow and carpal tunnel aren't bad enough. The neck, back, arm and shoulder pain that characterize text neck may lead to permanent damage over time; it's too soon to know for sure.

The human neck isn't designed to be bent forward for long periods of time, as it is when people spend hours huddled over portable electronic gadgets. Gorillas might be great at endless texting or watching videos on their iPads because they have massive neck muscles. But as humans evolved, their heads became smaller and better balanced, reducing the need for those muscles.

Crane your head forward two inches while sending texts, reading a Kindle or making a killing in the stock market, and it's as if you're wearing a 20-pound sack of potatoes around your neck.

Every inch the human head moves forward puts an extra 10 pounds or so of stress on the neck, shoulders and spine. Crane your head forward two inches while sending texts, reading a tablet or Kindle or making a killing in the stock market and it's as if you're wearing a 20-pound sack of potatoes around your neck. Do this long enough and it's bound to cause pain and problems.

Dean Fishman, a Florida chiropractor, coined the term “text neck” after seeing a seemingly endless series of young patients in his office crouched over their cell phones, texting away. Texting isn't the only thing that causes it, of course. The phrase just resonated better than forward head posture, a pre-cell phone era medical term, did.

In 2011 a study linking mobile device use to shoulder and neck pain found that twice as many people who used their devices three hours a day or more experienced pain in their shoulders, neck and other areas, compared to those who used their devices for less time.

Now text neck is so well-established there are cell phone apps to prevent it.

Mobile devices are too new to know for sure if spending hours hunched over them will cause permanent damage to joints and spinal discs, but it's probably a good idea to assume that over time, they could. Keeping your head craned forward doesn't just hurt; it can cause headaches and lowers lung capacity by up to 30%.

So how can you avoid getting text neck? Obviously, limiting mobile device use helps. If that's not an option, it is generally agreed that holding the phone or tablet up at eye level, rather than in the lap or some other location that forces you to look down is best. Taking frequent breaks, say every 15 to 20 minutes, is also important. A strong and flexible back and neck will also help you cope with the stress of leaning the head forward too far or too long. Posture-oriented exercise like yoga and Pilates can help.

Patients as young as three years old have reported symptoms of text neck. And with an ever-increasing number of mobile devices out there, the problem isn't likely to go away by itself.

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