Texting and Neck Pain
Everyone has probably heard at some time or other that texting is increasingly the cause of neck pain. One chiropractor, Dr. Fishman, has coined the term 'text neck' to describe the phenomenon he claims is on the rise. Is it true though, and what can we do about it if it is? With millions of texts sent every day, and every new generation arguably more reliant on their gadgets and gizmos than the next, texting could be a looming public health crisis. Or is it all just hype?
Studies on Texting and Neck Pain
A quick glance at the studies done on texting might lead you to think that some medical researchers are spending a lot of money conducting some pretty odd clinical experiments. Lambert (et al, 2009) surveyed hundreds of people about their texting habits and discovered that women were less likely to send texts using their left hand, and that there was no significant connection between writing hand and the hand used predominantly for texting, or for throwing things. A waste of time and effort? Well, hang on a second…
… in combination with another piece of research from earlier this year this might just lead to changes in our texting behaviour, and in the manufacture of mobile phones. Gustafsson (et al, 2010) found differences in thumb postures and physical loads during texting between men and women, and between those with musculoskeletal disorders and those without. Shoulder, neck, and arm muscle movements, and the motion of the thumbs, were measured and the researchers found significant differences in muscle load and thumb position when the texter was sitting rather than standing. In addition, women had higher muscle activity than men in the extensor digitorum (that's the forearm muscle that extends the four fingers to me and you!) and the abductor pollicis longus (the muscle that moves the thumb and wrist) when texting, with greater thumb speed, greater thumb abduction, and fewer pauses between thumb movements. The subjects who had musckuloskeletal issues, including neck pain, also had higher thumb movement and fewer pauses compared to those without these issues. The question remains, however, as to whether the speed and consistent movement leads to neck pain symptoms and musckuloskeletal issues, or whether the condition itself simply makes the texter try to text more quickly and reduce the longevity of their pain. All of this research could have implications for the design of new mobile devices, perhaps the world's first ergonomic mobile phone will materialize soon, who knows? A 2007 study by Chany found that clamshell style phones produces the most significant neck pain levels in a small group of participants, but this was a really small study so don't throw that clamshell phone out just yet.
A further study using biofeedback techniques discovered that texters had pronounced physiological responses that they were unaware of (Lin, et al, 2009). The researchers found that texters held their breath when receiving texts and showed signs of arousal, or heightened stress. These 'symptoms' of texting led to a higher likelihood of experiencing pain, particularly in the neck and shoulders with 83% of participants reporting neck and shoulder pain associated with texting. The study's authors suggest that it is this physiological response which could be key to reducing the incidence of neck pain from texting by training the texters to breathe consistently and not 'freeze' when receiving, or sending, a text.
Several surveys have found that women tend to text more than men, and appear to have a higher incidence of musculoskeletal disorders associated with repetitive strain on the muscles, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, neck pain, shoulder pain, and also fibromyalgia. Adolescents have very high texting rates and are also at risk of developing repetitive strain injuries and muscular issues from over use of computers, games consoles, and poor posture. Teaching them early how to avoid these problematic physiological responses, improving (gender-specific) design of mobile phones, and games console controllers, and keeping them healthy and active in general may save a whole generation from developing serious chronic health issues such as neck pain.
So, perhaps, Dr. Fishman is right, and the increase in degenerative cervical spinal changes seen in adolescents is indicative of a wider problem. Forward curvature of the neck causes all manner of neck, back, shoulder, arm, and even jaw pain, with arthritic changes setting in early. If you are experiencing numbness and tingling in your wrist and hands, pain in the neck, stiffness and cramps in the shoulders and arms, maybe it's time to look at your mobile differently. Changing our habits, even, shock horror, ignoring the phone, might just save us a real pain in the neck later on.