Can you get hurt from being on your phone all day? Expert says yes

Tech neck, selfie wrist, cellphone elbow are all too real, doctor says

By Michelle Ganley - Graham Media Group
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When Dr. Chris Tomshack was waiting to board a flight recently, he noticed a young man nearby in what appeared to be a pretty uncomfortable position.

“He had his head cocked forward, and his chin was literally touching his chest as he was on his (mobile) device,” Tomshack said. “I watched him and I thought, ‘Let’s see how long this goes on.’”

The boarding process took a little longer than expected, so Tomshack stood there and watched as the man remained in the same position for more than a half-hour straight.

“He didn’t move his head the entire time,” the doctor said. “It was almost 90 degrees. Think of the biomechanical stresses on the neck and shoulders.”

Well, it’s safe to say that most of us can imagine the discomfort -- maybe not the “biomechanical stresses,” but certainly, it sounds uncomfortable, and likely not great for your overall health.

'Tech neck'

What Tomshack is describing, by the way, is something that’s been called “tech neck,” which is kind of what it sounds like: neck problems due to overuse of your devices, and keeping your head and neck in that downward position.

Tomshack, the founder and CEO of HealthSource Chiropractic, which has clinics in 40 states, said his team coined the term.

“Our head weighs 10 to 12 pounds,” Tomshack said. “At a normal posture, our neck handles the pressure simply. That’s what our bodies are designed for. But the minute you bend your head forward, the physics involved change. When your head’s forward roughly 30 degrees, you’ve increased the weight of the neck to upward of 40 pounds. So if your head is cocked forward, it can be 60 pounds of pressure on the spine. We’re not built to withstand that weight all day long.”

Tech neck isn’t the only injury you can “suffer” from being on your devices or looking at screens all day. These may sound silly, but they’re very real -- and they’re not problems people had to deal with until very recently.

'Cellphone elbow'

Ever heard of tennis elbow or golf elbow? How about cellphone elbow?

Picture that man from the airport. Not only was his head cocked forward, but his arm was bent at the elbow at about a 90-degree angle, Tomshack said.

When you’re in a sustained position such as this, it can contribute to overuse syndrome, he added.

“You can get pain on the inside of your elbow (and) … it can become chronic,” Tomshack said. “When you contract your bicep area, the tendons along your elbow can get inflamed. And then low-grade inflammation will get worse, usually. Ten years ago, we’d think this was absurd -- a sustained contraction leading to tendonitis. But it’s happening.”

'Selfie wrist'

Finally, there’s even something called “selfie wrist,” which has been described as a form of carpal tunnel syndrome. People may feel a tingling or sharp pain, which comes from flexing your wrist inward or holding your phone too long without moving your hand.

All of this “does tend to be generational,” Tomshack said.

So, what to do?

If you’re worried that you spend too much time on your devices, or if you sit in front of a screen all day, there are some actions you can take before things get worse.

 

It’s true that you only have so many options when it comes to how you hold your phone, so if you’re in an office setting, rest your elbows on your desk. Take some of the pressure off. Buy a tennis elbow strap. To combat tech neck, sit upward and recline a bit. When you’re sitting up too straight, it can actually hurt your lower back, Tomshack said. So when you recline just slightly, it helps your body overall. Also, elevate your computer screen or laptop to eye level, if possible.

The best thing, the doctor said, is just getting off your devices whenever possible. Get up, go for a walk or try a standing desk or a desk with a balance ball as your chair. It’s advice you’ve likely heard before, but it’s important, Tomshack reiterated.

Neck pain is becoming more and more of an issue in young people. Tomshack said it used to be that patients in their 20s and 30s would typically come in with sort of lower back issue. Lately, the trend has turned toward neck problems, which he didn’t used to see even 10 to 15 years ago.

“Neck pain, shoulder pain (and) headaches, in the forehead (and) temples -- those are the biggest issues that we see,” Tomshack said. “A smaller symptom is numbness and tingling in head and fingers.”

Yikes.

If you’re questioning your own aches, pains and general health after reading this, you could go several different routes: You could talk to your family doctor, an orthopedic doctor, a chiropractor, a physical therapist or someone who specializes in repetitive-use injuries.

“The education is what’s going to change (the situation),” Tomshack said. “But it’s a slow-drip method.”

Graham Media Group 2019