Physical Therapy Advice: The Dangers Of Texting

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Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

New research is showing the tremendous impact that texting and other smartphone use can have on the human body. Larry Meiller learns what the risks are, and how to avoid them.

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  • 'Tech Neck' Is Real Concern For Spine, Neck Health

    Cell phones are a fact of life, and the sight of people with their necks bent, looking down at a screen, is very common.

    But what seems like a simple everyday activity is actually causing a lot of damage to users’ bodies and resulting in “text neck,” or “tech neck.”

    The neck and spine always carry the weight of the head, which is about 12 pounds. University of Wisconsin Health physical therapist Lori Thein Brody said that when a head becomes inclined while a person texts or looks at a device, that causes problems. She explained that because of physics and biomechanics, the pressure on the neck and spine increases dramatically with each degree of bending forward.

    “The more you incline your head, the more you’re moving that mass off of the axis of rotation,” she said. “You’re extending the lever arm, so it creates more load back at your neck, which is trying to hold it up.”

    UW Health physical therapist Bill Boissonnault used a bowling ball to illustrate that point. He said if a person has a 12-pound ball in the palm of their hand, there’s a big difference between holding it with the arm bent and the elbow tucked in versus hold it out at arm’s length.

    Even a 15-degree bend in the neck results in 27 pounds of pressure, which is more than twice that of the head in a neutral position. A 30-degree inclination raised the pressure to 40 pounds, and a 45-degree angle brings it up to 49 pounds of pressure.

    Young people do have a well-deserved reputation for being on their phones a lot, according to Thein Brody. She said that new research has found that some high-school students rack up as much as 5,000 hours of poor-posture tablet or smartphone use before graduation day.

    Regardless of age, screen time continues to climb, partly because there are so many activities available on cell phones.

    “It’s so alluring,” Brody said, “and it’s hard to let go of it.”

    Adults spend an average of two to four hours a day with their heads tilted over reading and texting on their smart phones and devices. Over the course of a year, that can mean thousands of hours for some users, Boissonnault said — “and that’s what gets us into trouble.”

    While technology has changed things, some of the fixes are the same as those recommended in more book-heavy times. Boissonnault said that bringing a phone or book up and closer to the face allows the head to stay more erect and avoid that added pressure on the neck.

    Using another part of the body to spread out the pressure can also help the neck. For example, supporting the chin on a cupped hand while the head is inclined will provide relief to the neck and spine.

    Boissonnault did caution that it isn’t just heavy tech users who need to be aware of the position of their neck, spine and head.

    “Any single posture for prolonged periods of time, or a certain activity over and over and over” can be problematic he said. “The repetition is what gets people into some trouble.”

    That young people started using technology so much earlier in life means many more hours spent looking down at screens over a lifetime. Brody said that it is impossible to predict the long-term damage until many people have been performing these actions over an extended period of time and the results can be studied.

    Brody said that in the long-run, bodies may develop in one of two very different ways. She said that humans may develop strong necks that are able to support that added pressure. Otherwise, there may be “failure of soft tissues in the neck” as a result.

    “Only time will tell,” she said.

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Bill Boissonnault Guest
  • Lori Thein Brody Guest

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