Does this picture look familiar? Chances are that most of you said ‘yes’! Whether it is yourself, your partner or your child that this reminds you of, it is a scene that has become part of the backdrop of modern society. From the desktop, smart phone and tablet, technology has not only changed the way that we live our lives but also the way that we use our bodies.
The consequence of our device-dominant lifestyle is that we spend longer in sedentary positions and don’t move around as much, while also exposing certain areas of the body to repetitive postural stresses. Lifting or repeatedly bending over at a work site are well recognised causes of repetitive strain, but what about the specific effects of texting and scrolling, or simply gazing down at a phone such as the young woman in this picture?
Working with peoples’ bodies in the field of osteopathy, these postural stresses are evident to us as practitioners on a daily basis. Quite simply, the repetitive motion and poor posture can lead to stiffness, aches and pains. But if ignored, the long-term consequences can be more serious.
Looking down at devices for extended periods of time stretches the muscles, joints and ligaments of the neck and upper back. When the neck is placed in the forward bent position, this is opposite to its natural spinal curve. When this is repeated on a regular basis over a long period of time, the neck can become settled into an abnormally bent posture, which can lead to a loss of the neck’s natural arch. In the short-term, this can give rise to pain and stiffness of the muscles and joints of the neck or to headaches. However, the impact over the longer term is much more concerning as the altered neck alignment can lead to structural wear and tear of the joints and discs of the spine.
Disc problems are well known to occur in people who spend a great deal of time looking down with their necks bent, surgeons among them. However, if the general population are more engaged in these activities, it may result in an earlier onset of degenerative disc disease, or osteoarthritis (1).
As practitioners, we are observing that these postural problems are showing up in children and adolescents that we see in our clinic. How this will impact them in years to come is of great concern to us, and is why we are passionate about raising the awareness of this issue. If you have concerns about your child or teen and would like to have them assessed, please contact us as we would be very happy to help.
What about the impact of technology on our hands and fingers?
The repeated motions of texting and typing can give rise to problems and symptoms which can range from general hand pain, to specific tendon strain or inflammation. The thumb is vulnerable to this from repetitive scrolling and may result in pain over the thumb or side of the wrist, which can extend up the forearm (2).
Additionally, pushing buttons too hard with the fingers can lead to inflammation around the tendons and pulleys that enable the fingers to bend, increasing the risk for trigger finger (stenosing tenosynovitis). Symptoms include pain, popping, and a feeling that the digit is locking when you bend or straighten it (2).
Strategies to minimise strain
- Raise the level of the device by propping it, or your arm holding the device, with cushions.
- Try and keep your gaze parallel to the floor instead of looking downward.
- Be tuned into any discomfort. This is a sign from your body and is a good time to adjust your posture, take a break and move, or do some stretches.
- If you are working on a laptop for extended periods or time, it is well worth buying a laptop stand and a spare keyboard so that it can be setup like a desktop, allowing the monitor to be raised and sparing the neck from excess strain.
- Take a break from the activity and stretch the muscles and tendons of your fingers, wrists and forearms. You may need advice on this and we can help you.
- Modify the way that you use your electronic and digital devices. If texting with your thumb causes pain, you may need to use other fingers to text, or use a stylus.
- If there is ongoing pain and inflammation, take a break by using voice commands, or use a fatter stylus to put less stress on the thumb joint.
- To ease wrist, hand or forearm pain, set up your workstation so that your forearms are parallel to the floor, your wrists are straight and in line with your forearms, and your elbows are relaxed and bent at a 90-degree angle at your wrist.
- Keep the mouse in front of you, not to the side, or try a vertical mouse which places the hand in a less stressful position (2).
- New York Times (2019).About the idea that you’re growing horns from looking down at your phone…Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/20/health/horns-cellphones-bones.html
- Harvard Health (2018). The surprising side effects of using technology. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-surprising-side-effects-from-using-technology