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Could your phone use be impacting your spinal health?

Recent research shows links to a range of postural issues, from neck to back pain

With more and more time spent glued to our screens, many Australians are now living in an ‘always on’ state. From smartphones to laptops, we know these technologies can impact different areas of health, from quality of sleep to emotional wellbeing.

Amongst these, postural health is a front-runner. When you think about the prolonged and unnatural positions we tend to use our devices — in the office chair, watching netflix, scrolling instagram —  it’s no surprise health professionals are looking into what may be the underlying effects. Meanwhile, the media are already touting a new ailment called “text neck”.

But how much of this is based on fact? Is our postural health really at risk from our new everyday habits?

What does the research say?

Whether you’re walking down the street or sitting on the train, seeing a person fixed on their screen is no rare sighting. It’s often in this situation phone users will droop their head forward and down, creating a curve in the upper region of the spine.  

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While research into this posture is still emerging, initial studies have shown links between our digital habits and musculoskeletal issues like back and neck pain. A study of over 7,000 Swedish young adults aged between 20 – 24 found a relation between text messaging and physical symptoms in the neck and upper back, however, the results also indicate the effects may be short-term and more research is required.

Another US study looked at the potential long-term effects of postures linked to screen use. This research further reveals that neck flexion could place up to 25kg of added stress on the spine. Led by the chief of spinal surgery at a New York practice, the paper states these postural habits may lead to early degeneration of the spine over time. It should be noted that this research paper is based on 3D modelling and more research in this broader area continues to emerge.

Maintaining a healthy spine

Australian physiotherapist, Justin Braver, has noticed a large number of clients reporting postural related neck and upper back pain which can be further irritated from prolonged use of handheld devices such as smartphones.

“We spend a lot of time throughout the day in flexed postures such as hunching forward while sitting at a computer,” says Justin. “Using our mobile phones for an extended period of time may be an aggravating factor for some patients with postural related spinal pain due to the poor posture of the head and neck whilst using our phones.”    

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So, with no signs of our screen time decreasing, it’s important that we learn how to maintain a healthy posture while using our phones. Justin shares these simple exercise and lifestyle habits that can prevent neck pain and poor spinal health:

  • Stretch and strengthen: Building healthy neck muscles is one of the best preventative measures you can take to counter the time spent on devices. Start with the ‘Chin Tuck’; simply pull your chin in towards your neck to create a ‘double chin’ and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat this action another four times and aim to complete the whole process five times a day. It’s great to do when you head to the bathroom on a work break as you can check your technique in the mirror.
  • Set a reminder: It’s important that we become aware of our posture when using our devices. There are plenty of apps for your phone and computer which send you reminders to take a break from technology and stretch. Browser extensions such as PostureMinder are great for encouraging you to get up and stretch from your computer. Stand Up is a fantastic app for your phone that pings you when it’s time to put down that device and get up and move.
  • Try pilates or yoga: Both pilates and yoga are great forms of exercise that encourage a healthy spine. The postures and movement patterns help to stretch and strengthen the muscles around the spine, including the neck. They also help to cultivate and build a strong core, which is also beneficial for spine health.
  • Reduce screen time: It’s the most obvious, but also the hardest. Phone apps such as Moment actually tell you how much time you spend a day on your device.

If you’re looking for other ways to incorporate healthy habits into your day, head on over to our Healthy Habits page.

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