How Your Smart Phone is Hurting Your Body
I recently had some relatives visiting from out of town who had driven down to visit me here in Orange County from the San Francisco area. When they arrived I noticed that one of them was rubbing her neck and wincing in pain as we spoke.
Of course, being the always-on-the-job, Neuromuscular Therapist that I am, I asked about it. She indicated that she had spent most of the seven hour trip from the Bay Area to my home in San Clemente, getting caught up on work on her smart phone. She was now experiencing major neck pain and an excruciating headache from the prolonged use of her mobile device.
The very first thing I did was give her an impromptu Deep Tissue/Trigger Point Session to help alleviate her headache and loosen up her contracted muscles. Next, I booked her for a Neuromuscular Therapy session at my office in San Juan Capistrano for the following day. By the end of their visit three days later, she was feeling mostly back to normal and was headache-free. I also gave her some suggestions for stretching and for proper smart phone usage.
The event got me to thinking and I was reminded of a recent article that I read in Massage Therapy Journal by Dr. Joseph E. Muscolino about dysfunctional postures and injuries caused by smart phone/mobile device usage being on the rise. I went back and re-read the article (recommended reading for anyone who spends significant time using these devices) and wanted to share a few key points here, but more importantly, suggest some very helpful tips on how to avoid these potentially painful and damaging situations.
Common Problems Caused by Smart Phone Use
This is caused by prolonged holding or gripping of a smart phone which leads to overuse of the wrist flexor group of muscles that attach to the forearm. This can lead to fatigue, inflammation, dysfunction and possible degeneration of the flexor tendon of the wrist. This is a common injury to Tennis players due to the repetitive nature of their swing, which is how it got its name.
Prolonged holding of a smart phone can also lead to Tennis Elbow, a condition caused by overuse of the extensor tendon of the wrist. Much like Golfer’s Elbow, this is an overuse condition that can lead to more serious issues such as fatigue, inflammation, dysfunction and possible degeneration of the tendon. Gripping the phone more tightly than necessary will also exacerbate this condition.
This is an extremely common problem due to the nature of how people have been speaking on phones for years. Uptight Shoulders occurs when the phone is being cradled or compressed between the ear and shoulder. Because this posture requires muscle contraction to bring the phone up to the ear and the head down to the shoulder, these muscle groups can become physically stressed, fatigued and tight leading to other, more serious issues including painful trigger points. Again, this is a problem that has existed for years with land-line usage but has become even more of a problem due to the smaller size of smart phones and the need to cradle them more tightly.
Anterior Shoulder Strain
One very common way for people to use their smart phone is to hold it in the air out in front of them. The problem with this posture is that it requires contraction and stabilization of the shoulder muscle group that can become fatigued, overly stressed and injured. Also, the higher the phone is held in this position the greater the strain being put on the shoulder muscles.
Rotator Cuff Strain/Tendinitis
Another common issue associated with holding the phone out in front of you is physical stress being put on the rotator cuff muscle group. Whenever the arm is lifted upward in the air, it is necessary for the rotator cuff musculature to contract and provide stabilization. Overuse of this posture can lead to fatigue, tightening, strain and tendinitis of the rotator cuff.
Because so many people hold their smart phone down low, in front of them, Rounded Shoulders is a common postural problem. This situation affects multiple muscle groups and, as with other over-use conditions, when this posture is assumed for prolonged periods the effects can become more chronic and severe.
Rounded Upper Back
Rounded upper back almost always accompanies rounded shoulders. As the shoulder and arms collapse forward and down, the spine also rounds and collapses into flexion. As with rounded shoulders, rounded upper back is caused and/or exacerbated by prolonged use of the smart phone down in front of the body.
Rounded Lower Back
Rounded lower back involves excessive posterior tilt of the pelvis and misalignment of the lumbar spine. This condition is caused by collapsing the entire trunk of the body forward, and occurs when using the smart phone down low in front of the body, often in the lap. The collapsed posture of rounded lower back usually couples with the collapsed postures of rounded upper back and rounded shoulders, as well as forward head posture.
Forward Head and Tension Headaches
In conjunction with Rounded Shoulders, Upper Back and Lower back, forward head is another adverse effect of holding the smart phone down low. When utilizing this posture, the center of weight for the head is pushed forward. This imbalance, sometimes referred to as ‘Texting Neck’, causes constant contraction of musculature to compensate, leading to more chronic issues including tension headaches. This is the condition my relative was dealing with when she spent the entire trip in the car on her phone.
Texting thumb is the name given to irritation/inflammation/injury to the tendons of the thumb due to repetitive overuse when texting or otherwise using a smart phone. The strain to the thumb comes less from the pressing of the thumb against the phone than it does from the traveling of the thumb that is necessary to move from one area of the screen to another; although pressing harder would add to the physical stress.
Tips for Smart Phone Usage and Postures
Take Breaks – As most (if not all) of the conditions discussed here are related to prolonged usage sessions of smart phones and other mobile devices, it is highly recommended that you take breaks every 15-20 minutes. Getting up and moving around and/or stretching as often as possible allows for proper realignment of muscle groups and helps prevent prolonged contraction of muscles that can cause severe issues over time.
- Always Provide Support – Whether you’re sitting, standing, lying down or otherwise using your smart phone, make sure you provide proper support for your arms, elbows, shoulders etc. If sitting at a desk or in a chair, make sure to utilize arm rests or your desk for proper arm support so that you can hold the phone at eye level. If sitting on the ground try to utilize a wall to sit up against for back support and use your knees to support your elbows/arms. If no proper support is available, you can cross your free arm across your chest and under the one you’re holding the phone with to provide support. The bottom line is to make sure that you are NOT holding the phone out in front of you without support or resting it on your lap.
- Hold Phone At Eye Level – The closer to eye level you can hold your phone (while still providing support to your arms, elbows and shoulders) the better. This helps prevent ‘Texting Neck’ by alleviating the force created when the head is held down and forward. Smart Phone desk holders like this one are a great option to raise the eye level of the device while allowing for hands-free usage.
- Hold Your Phone Gently – Try not to grip the phone more tightly than necessary to reduce muscle contractions and prolonged strain.
- When Typing, Tap Lightly – Make sure to take care in how you’re typing and use light-handed typing movements when possible. As above, this will help reduce additional strain.
I also work extensively with clients to improve posture and modify detrimental behaviors or activities that lead to these problems to begin with. Often, it’s been my experience that other complications will arise from these conditions if left unchecked.
For those that spend significant time using their smart phone and may be experiencing muscle fatigue, soreness or minor/chronic pain due to prolonged usage, I would suggest giving me a call (949) 496-2821 to schedule a consultation with me at my San Juan Capistrano office, and start your personal ‘Path to Wellness’.
Have a balanced Day! ~Maria
About The Author
Maria Martos is the Executive Director and Founder of the Cancer Support and Education Program, and has been owner of Sagewood Wellness Center for 20 years. As a Certified Neuromuscular Therapist, Maria specializes in the treatment of severe, chronic or minor pain, as well as injury rehabilitation and prevention. She holds a certification in Sports Massage providing her with expertise to evaluate and address athletic injuries and to help professional and recreational athletes improve their athletic performance. Maria is also Board Certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. She holds a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology, and offers Holistic Counseling, focusing on Integrative Mind-Body Therapy to help individuals uncover and remove unconscious blocks that limit them from living their best lives. She is also a Reiki Master and Teacher, and has worked in the health care field for over 25 years. Her passion and life’s calling is to help others not just survive, but thrive in the face of challenges.