“Text neck”? Got it. “Cellphone elbow” or cubital tunnel syndrome? Yep. Tendinitis? Check. For well over a decade, there have been months when I couldn’t type an email. Or pick up a piece of paper, let alone my children.
Pain is a great and terrible teacher. Few pay attention unless they too begin to suffer.
Research, meanwhile, hasn’t matched the pace of tech innovation. Still, nearly a decade after the smartphone’s arrival, evidence of tech-caused digital disabilities is emerging.
Among the studies: College students with high smartphone usage are more likely than those with low usage to experience impaired hand function, thumb pain and other issues, a 2015 study in the journal Muscle & Nerve found. Other recent articles associate the use of hand-held devices with discomfort, pain and repetitive-strain injuries.
A recent case study in JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, chronicled a 29-year-old man who played a match-3 puzzle video game (such as Candy Crush or Puzzle Quest) all day for six to eight weeks, one-handed while doing other tasks. Researchers at the Naval Medical Center San Diego said all this play on his smartphone was associated with chronic thumb pain and a ruptured tendon. They noted that gaming suppresses pain perception: In effect, people don’t notice their pain enough to stop before going too far.
Whether typing, swiping or tapping, people are stressing an array of muscles, nerves and tendons. Movements that might seem minor can wreak havoc when done repeatedly with force, experts say, and such usage is likely to increase, especially among youth.
By 2015, nearly two-thirds of American adults owned a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011, a Pew Research Center report found, and “smartphone ownership is especially high among younger Americans” at 85 percent.
“Text neck” has become a catchphrase describing neck pain and damage from “looking down at your cell phone, tablet, or other wireless devices too frequently and for too long,” chiropractor Steven Shoshany wrote recently on the peer-reviewed physicians’ website Spine-health. A head bent 45 degrees forward – a typical tilt while one is texting – exerts a force on the spine of nearly 23 kilograms, noted a 2014 study in Surgical Technology International – weight that hangs off neck ligaments, muscles and bones.
A head bent 45 degrees forward – a typical tilt while one is texting – exerts a force on the spine of nearly 23 kilograms
In many ways, it’s about the angle. Occupational health and safety researcher Jack Dennerlein, of Harvard and Northeastern universities, found that the ways we torque our necks or twist and overextend wrists or thumbs – along with the length of time we spend on devices – can cause discomfort and pain. In a 2015 review article in the journal Work, Dennerlein wrote that the state of ergonomics, or safe design, “for mobile technology is a work in progress.”
Tablet stands, external keyboards, voice dictation, neck support and styluses could help prevent discomfort, he noted. In some ways, he said, we’re in the midst of a natural experiment: “Mobile devices allow us to use them in any type of configuration – to lay back in bed, upside down, in all sorts of awkward postures. A few minutes might be okay, but if you’re typing emails for three hours, that’s not good.”
Dennerlein is at the center of the emerging research. In 2012, he led a Harvard study that found that adjusting tablet viewing angle – to as straight ahead as possible – provides relief. His other recent research has evaluated the benefits of smaller smartphones and better icon placement for hand comfort and thumb access.
Most advice has not yet filtered down. “Tons of people come in with tendinitis and overuse injuries, and a lot of them are texting,” said Ryan M. Zimmerman, a Baltimore orthopedic surgeon and hand specialist. It’s hard to determine a sole cause, he said, because arthritis or other issues might factor in. What’s clear, he said, is this: “People spend a lot of time with their shoulders rounded forward, focused on this little, tiny device.”
Frequent texters might notice a painful snapping when bending the thumb. Other overuse symptoms include tenderness, pain, tingling and loss of sensation or strength. Treatment may include anti-inflammatories, heat or cold packs, and braces. Next steps: physical therapy, steroid injections or surgery.
For some patients in pain, Zimmerman advises taking a hiatus, especially to ease a thumb disorder known as de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, a.k.a. BlackBerry thumb. His advice often falls on deaf – or ear-bud-plugged – ears. “Kids are starting to have the same problems as adults,” Zimmerman said. “They’ll say, ‘It hurts when I text.’ And I say, ‘Stop doing that.’ But that’s a totally unacceptable proposition to them. It’s a ‘just-give-me-a-shot’ kind of thing.’”
Newer waves of digital natives might be at greater risk. Tech device use is increasing, even in schools. The Department of Education’s 2016 National Education Technology Plan urges higher integration of tech in K-12 classrooms. Yet the plan does not list ergonomic guidelines to prevent pain or injury.
Yet a bent-neck posture, which is seen in many classrooms, is “implicated in neck pain,” according to a 2015 study in Ergonomics, which found that the mechanical demand on neck muscles is three to five times greater with such flexion than a neutral posture for seated tablet users.
Children could be especially susceptible to tech-related disorders
Baltimore County Public Schools is leading Maryland with what some officials call a “digital learning environment.” Increased screen time is de rigueur, including software-based curricula. In a few years, under the schools’ plan, my children are to be among 110,000 students assigned their own laptop or tablet.
I’m among parents raising questions about the district’s lack of screen-time limits and other guidelines. Children could be especially susceptible to tech-related disorders, experts say, because they lack postural awareness and their bodies are growing. “It’s a big experiment,” Zimmerman said. Recently, the superintendent announced formation of a Baltimore County School Health Council to make recommendations.
Karen Jacobs, a Boston University clinical professor of occupational therapy, has authored several studies on tech ergonomics, with upcoming findings showing that ergonomic education significantly improves neck posture in middle school students using tablets.
Source: National Post