Ishan Vaid, a marketing executive, remembers spending hours daily on his phone. Then, some months ago, he started suffering from severe neck pain, with the base of his neck getting swollen and tender. A visit to the doctor confirmed the early onset of cervical spondylitis. To immediately address his pain, he was given pain medications. Vaid was also counselled to keep the mobile phone at eye level as much as possible so as not to strain the neck muscles."The doctor also advised on not using the phone continuously for prolonged periods, besides practising regular neck stretching and strengthening exercises," he says.
Many of us, like Vaid, has spoken on our cellphones innumerable times while working on something else, cradling the phone between the ear and shoulder to do so. While some may counter that it is multitasking at its best, it turns out that it is terrible for us. And it is not just cradling the phone in this strange manner that is to blame. Even a simple task like constantly texting can land you with a "tech neck" or "text neck" trouble, as doctors often refer to it.
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"With the increasing use of mobile phones all over the world, there has been a significant increase in the number of patients coming to the hospital with neck pain, shoulder pain, upper back pain and poor posture," points out Dr Hitesh Garg, Head - Ortho Spine Surgery, Artemis Hospitals, Gurugram. According to him, when we bend our neck continuously for prolonged periods of time, it puts an extra load on our neck muscles, cervical intervertebral discs and joints known as facet joints. "Scientific research has shown that just bending the neck forwards by 15 degrees puts around 12.5 kg of additional weight on our neck. This increases to 16 kg at 30 degrees and 27.2 kg at 60 degrees of neck flexion. When the cervical intervertebral discs and facet joints are under this increased load for increased periods of time, this leads to very early disc degeneration and arthritis of facet joints known as cervical spondylitis," he says.
His opinion is mirrored by Dr Pramod Saini, Senior Consultant, Department of Spine & Deformity Correction, Jaypee Hospital, Noida."The weight of the head doubles or even triples when a person bends forward. Naturally, it causes the neck to strain, and as a result, it severely affects the back. Poor posture while sitting, standing or walking just doesn't cause upper body pain and stiffness but also affects other parts of the spine such as the middle and low back," says Dr Saini.
While historically, neck pain is usually an issue in older people when the spine degenerates, in recent years, many young adults and children are complaining about neck pain and associated symptoms, agrees Dr Harshal Bamb, Consultant Spine Surgeon, Global Hospital, Mumbai. Prolonged abnormal posture while using the cellphone leads to overuse of supportive muscles, tendons and joints of the neck, he says--this leads to overuse injuries and sprains. "Over a period of time, changes in discs and joints of the cervical spine may also lead to a permanent change in the alignment of the neck, nerve compression and related syndrome. A lot of studies have shown an association of smartphone use with neck pain and early-onset spinal degeneration," says Dr Bamb.
Some of the symptoms of tech neck, according to Dr Garg, are axial neck pain, upper back pain and occipital headache. "This pain is usually a dull ache but can be a severe throbbing type of pain at other times. The pain can also radiate into the shoulders and arms and can be associated with tingling and numbness," he adds.
What's the best treatment, you ask? "Prevention," comes the swift reply. The best measure, according to Bamb, to reduce stress on the neck is first and foremost to assume the proper posture, improve work ergonomics, reduce gadget dependence and improve the strength of supportive muscles. "All this together can definitely curb the risk of potential neck issues," he adds.
But it is easier said than done. Nowadays, usage of mobile has increased a lot. We are mostly doing our work through mobiles. Smartphones and tablets are now an integral part of our daily lives. In order to bring the devices closer to our faces, our back becomes rounded, our shoulders roll inwards, and our head tilts forward. If we take an average of 2 and 4 hours time spent on mobiles or tablets per day, this totals to around 700 and 1,400 hours per year spent in positions which can cause excessive stress.
Dr Yash Gulati, Senior Consultant, Orthopaedics, Joint Replacement and Spine, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Delhi, advises limited screen time every day and indulging in some kind of neck and spine exercises to keep the excessive stress away from the neck. Similarly, Dr Ankur Nanda, Senior Consultant Spine Services, Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, Delhi, agrees that one should not use mobiles for longer than 10-15 minutes at a stretch. "If the time period is more than that, we advise our patients to use a large screen like a desktop. In case you don't have access to a large screen, you can place the mobile on a table using a cradle or mobile stand. The idea is to position your mobile in such a way that your neck doesn't get bent for a long time at a particular angle," he says.
It has been a month since Vaid has been following the doctor's advice."Though it is not possible to reduce my time on calls, I try to use a Bluetooth device so that my posture is not affected. Also, I make sure to do 20 minutes of neck and shoulder exercises every day. While my problem has not completely vanished, it has considerably reduced, and I am more comfortable now," he says.
Dos and don'ts to avoid neck issues while using the cellphone
1. Bring the device to eye level. This will minimise the bend in your neck and maintain optimal spine posture
2. Use the hands-free function during long conversations
3. Use mobile devices for only short-duration tasks and use a computer for anything longer
4. Take frequent micro-breaks to move/stretch your neck and back
5. Limit your device use to 20-minute sessions
6. Consider making a phone call rather than spending a long time texting
7. Lower the brightness of the mobile screen and use reading mode as much as possible
Courtesy Dr Savyasachi Saxena, Consultant ENT, Fortis Hospital, Noida