Constant smartphone use impacts everyday posture—often without being recognized.
Do you suffer from headaches in the
back of your head or behind your eye? Do you get
neck or shoulder pain, radiating pain or numbness
that may include tingling or burning into
your arms? Do you have a stiff neck in the morning?
Have your symptoms become worse over
months or even years? Does this happen when
you drive, use your computer, sit on a recliner or
use your phone?
If you answered yes to any of these, you may
have what can be called “iPhone® neck”—a
problem in the neck that develops from being
in a bent forward position for too long a period
of time. The hours that modern society spends
in a flexed position continues to increase with
activities such as watching TV, computer use,
driving and texting.
Smart phones and computers have only
compounded this in recent times. We eat bent
forward, drive in a flexed position, watch TV
or movies in a cushioned chair that we sink
into- all pushing our spine in a flexed position.
How often are we doing something in which
we actually look up?
STRESS ON THE SPINE
The normal curves of the spine reduce the stress
in our spine by 10 times. That may be hard to
believe, but think about a spring—by being
curved, it does not bend at one point, but the
stress is absorbed throughout the spring. The
same is true of our spine in that the curves help
to absorb shock and stress.
Activities in modern society tend to move these
curves into a flexed position. We have all seen
the elderly with severe kyphosis, also termed a
dowager’s hump. This occurs over years of being
bent forward and the person usually is not aware
of the problem until it has already become severe.
A research study was done in which needles
measured the pressure inside the intervertebral
disks in the neck. Standing with normal posture
caused 12 pounds of pressure on a disk. The
forward head position triples the pressure! This
increase in pressure may accelerate disk degeneration,
arthritis and disk bulging or herniation.
This helps to explain why these problems are
so common. Reportedly, 60 percent of people
over age 40 have some degree of cervical disk
degeneration. Younger people are also being
affected, and may be at higher risk due to the
use of texting and phones.
The forward head position compresses the
muscles at the base of the skull and can cause
headaches. This can particularly cause pain in
the back of the head, which can sometimes radiate
into the forehead or behind the eye. Muscle
spasm may be a significant part of this problem.
Damage to structures in the neck can also
cause pain that radiates into the top of the
shoulder, in between the shoulder blades and
into an arm. This usually affects only one side. The
symptoms may include pain, numbness, tingling,
burning and aching. Positions that usually make
these things worse are using a computer, driving,
eating, reading and bending forward.
What can be done to correct these problems?
The good news is that many of these cases can
be alleviated completely. A physical therapist
can help with this process. Correction involves
changing the root cause of the symptoms, such
as posture correction, chair change or changing
driving position. This may also include
stretching the chest and front of the neck, and
strengthening of the upper back. Cervical traction
may also help with disk related symptoms.
Soft-tissue mobilization and stretches may help
tight muscles to relax. It does take a lot of work
to change long-term habits.
One thing you can do right now is to evaluate
the position you are in when using your
phone, computer, etc. Are you holding your head
straight? The wall test is a classic way of determining
“normal posture.” Stand against a wall
with your buttocks, shoulders and back of head
touching with your eyes level. This is “normal,”
although not everyone can attain this position.
It should be noted that “normal posture” is not
good for everyone, and therefore, an evaluation
by a doctor or therapist can help determine what
is best for you.
iPhone® neck can be a surprising cause of many
headaches, neck and arm pain. The great news is
that many times it can be corrected with conservative
treatment. The take home message is not
to ignore significant symptoms. The incidence
of cases like the ones described has increased
significantly over the last few years. A visit to
your primary care doctor or physical therapist
to evaluate these symptoms is a reasonable
place to start.