Smartphones just a pain in the neck

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  Last updated February 28, 2019 at 10:17 am


Nearly one-third of smartphone users have neck and back pain, with researchers blaming “text neck”.

If you’re hunching your head over to read this on a smartphone, you might be putting yourself at risk of the effects of “text neck”, say Thai and Australian researchers.

But you’re not alone, with most of the world’s 3.4 billion smartphone users also putting their necks on the line. But the worst offenders are those of us who slouch and twist ourselves into a seemingly comfy position for an extended binge.

In a pair of studies, the multinational team have found that almost a third of smartphone users have neck pain as a result of awkward posture while using the phone.

The work was overseen by Rose Boucaut from the University of South Australia, and has been published two papers in PLoS ONE and WORK.

Text neck

Text neck describes when mobile phone users bend their neck to sharp angles while using their phone, or twisting their neck and body to awkward shapes. Holding these positions increases the likelihood of soft tissue discomfort, and it seems to be increasing in young people, who are experiencing neck pain earlier than previous generations.

“Smartphone users typically bend their neck slightly forward when reading and writing text messages. They also sometimes bend or twist their neck sideways and put their upper body and legs in awkward positions,” says Boucaut.

“These postures put uneven pressure on the soft tissues around the spine, that can lead to discomfort.”

Researchers from Thailand’s Khon Kaen University began by recording video of 30 smartphone users aged between 18-25 years, and analysing the footage using a standard ergonomic measure that has previously been used to assess ergonomic risks of computer usage.

When it came to smartphone users, they found that the average risk score was 6, far above the generally acceptable score of between 1-2.

In particular, the researchers found issues with the neck, trunk and leg postures of people while using a phone, which lead researcher Suwalee Namwongsa says could lead to musculoskeletal injuries.

To investigate how much discomfort the awkward posture was creating, the researchers then surveyed nearly 800 Thai university students.

Of smartphone users, 32 per cent reported having neck pain, 26 per cent shoulder pain, 20 per cent upper back pain and 19 per cent wrist and hand pain.

The students who binged on their phones were most likely to have pain, while women also experienced far more musculoskeletal problems than men – 71 per cent compared to 28 per cent.

“It is also doubtful whether people experiencing back and neck pain (especially young people) are aware it could be as a result of excessive smartphone use,” says Boucaut.

“Health practitioners need to educate their patients about safe postures and curtailing time spent using smartphones to help prevent these issues.”

Avoiding the pain

The authors write that the worst position for the neck was bending the neck downwards more than 20 degrees, or extending the neck while twisting or bending it to the side.

These are typical of how someone might use their phone on the sofa or in bed.

Having a torso twisted more than 20 degrees for extended periods of time was also identified as increasing the risk of muscle pain.

However, simple ergonomic rules can help avoid the pain, say the researchers. Sitting straight with relaxed shoulders, and moving regularly, would help prevent discomfort.

To prevent strain on a single wrist the researchers suggest using both hands to text or type, and propping it against a book or another object while watching it to avoid needing to bend the neck too far.

Plus, just like sitting at a desk, they recommend getting up and moving around regularly.


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About the Author

Ben Lewis
Ben Lewis is the Editor of Australia’s Science Channel, and a contributor to Cosmos Magazine. He has worked with scientists and science storytellers including Jane Goodall, Dr Karl, Brian Cox, Chris Hadfield, Robert Llewellyn, astronauts, elite athletes, Antarctic explorers, chefs and comedians. Ben has also been involved in public events around Australia and was co-writer, producer and director of The Science of Doctor Who, which toured nationally in 2014 in association with BBC Worldwide Australia & New Zealand. Want more Ben? You can hear him on ABC and commercial radio in Adelaide, regional SA, across NSW, and the ACT. He also speaks at universities around Australia on communicating science to the public. Around the office he makes the worst jokes known to mankind.

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