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Text Neck – and Other Technology Related Injuries

Do you constantly check Facebook and messages on your smartphone? Relax with an e-book on your commute? Or is your guilty pleasure playing “Call of Duty” for hours on end? Technology has given us many convenient and fun obsessions, but they can really be a pain in the neck … or hand … or elbow. Our mobile world is partially responsible for an increase in RSIs (Repetitive Stress Injuries).

You may have heard the terms “Blackberry thumb” or “iPod finger.” They are slang for very real conditions that are caused by increased use of handheld devices. When you overuse a particular muscle or muscle group — such as while texting, playing video games or talking on your cell phone — you could develop chronic neck, hand or elbow pain. Symptoms may include swelling, tenderness, tingling, numbness, stiffness or weakness. Although these conditions are not life threatening, they are often debilitating and always uncomfortable.

“As we know, too much of anything can be detrimental,” explains Dr. Charles Cassidy, Orthopaedist-in-Chief at Tufts Medical Center. “Frequent breaks for stretching or, at the very least, alternating between a smart phone and larger keypad or hands-free device, can relieve stress on the nerves and muscles.”

Handheld devices are blamed for an increase in tendinitis (an inflammation in a tendon, the thick cord that connects muscle to bone), cubital tunnel syndrome (nerve entrapment in the “funny bone” area) and carpal tunnel syndrome (nerve compression in the hand or wrist). Stenosing tenosynovitis (trigger finger or texting tendonitis) is another related problem that causes your finger to be stuck in a bent position. “We have all experienced our foot falling asleep. Use that as a guide. Hand numbness that lasts longer than an asleep foot is concerning and worth discussing with your doctor.” says Dr. Cassidy.

Hands and elbows are obvious pain receptacles when you think about the way you use your mobile technology. Your neck is another. A human head weighs approximately 10 pounds. When you bend it forward to text, type or browse you put additional pressure on your spine. Just looking down at your most recent text can make your neck hold an extra 20 to 30 pounds. The stretching of tissue can cause muscle strain, pinched nerves or even herniated discs. The worst scenario is that it can change the natural curvature of your neck.

RSIs are treatable with anti-inflammatory medications or steroids, physiotherapy and sometimes surgery, depending on the severity. The orthopedic staff at Tufts Medical Center is trained to properly diagnose and treat all sorts of RSIs.

It is highly unlikely that you’ll part ways with your smartphone or e-reader any time soon, but there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of suffering pain from your handheld devices:

  • Keep your ears over your shoulders and your head in a neutral position (in other words, avoid bending your head forward for a long period of time).
  • Maintain proper posture to avoid strain.
  • Use both thumbs if you’re texting.
  • Keep text messages short and sweet.
  • Avoid putting direct pressure on a particular area.
  • Take frequent breaks from using your devices.
  • Get up and move around.
  • Use a table with sufficient wrist support and an external keyboard for your laptop or iPad (keep it at eye level, if possible).
  • Align your wrists, arms and fingers when you’re typing and keep a light touch.
  • Wear a headset or use Bluetooth technology when talking on your smartphone.
  • Look away from your device frequently; focus on something in the distance to reduce eyestrain.
  • Treat sore body parts with the RICE technique (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation).
  • Take anti-inflammatory medication (aspirin or ibuprofen).
  • Support your thumb, wrist or elbow with a splint or wrap.
  • Limit your use of devices.

Technology has definitely made communications easier, but sometimes there’s a price to pay.