Texting can be a pain in the neck

text neck

“Text neck” refers to the craning of the neck and spine due to frequent texting and use of handheld devices such as smartphones, tablets and e-readers. (Alexis Goncalves/Ryersonian Staff)

Omnia Hassan thinks constantly using her phone may be making her a victim of “text neck” —  the craning of the neck and spine due to frequent use of mobile devices.

The Ryerson business student uses her iPhone for up to 15 hours a day to text friends, check emails, watch videos and use social media.

“Whenever I am using my phone for a long period of time and I want to do my work after, my neck aches so much that I have to take an hour break before starting,” she says.

Hassan is not alone.

Although the phenomenon of text neck is still relatively new, one preliminary study in 2011 conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo found a strong correlation between handheld device use and musculoskeletal symptoms.

The study, which was one of the first to collect data on discomfort linked to device use, found that 98 per cent of university participants used a mobile handheld device for nearly five hours a day, and 85 per cent reported pain in their hands, neck and shoulder areas. The study concluded that the total time spent using a handheld device was “significantly associated” with some level of pain in the upper limbs.

In an effort to raise awareness about proper spinal health, Dr. Simon Wang, a chiropractor and biomechanics teacher, recently launched the Straighten Up Canada app with the Canadian Chiropractic Association, to help people improve their postures.

Through the free app, users can watch 12 short exercise videos, set reminders to complete their exercises and track and share their progress on social media. The app was released in anticipation of World Spine Day next Thursday, and supports this year’s theme, “Straighten Up and Move.”

The term text neck started to catch on when Dr. Dean Fishman, a chiropractic physician from Florida, coined the term a couple years ago claiming that text neck is a global epidemic, which damages posture and distorts the way the body is supposed to grow.

Since then, medical practitioners have started to take notice of text neck as an area of public health concern, while the authors of the Waterloo study, Dr. Richard Wells and Dr. Benjamin Amick, hope to lead the way in further exploring the issue.

“We are concerned about the limited number of well-designed studies available,” they told the Institute For Work & Health. “Our next step is to look at how handheld tablets may contribute to musculoskeletal symptoms.”

Wang says that over time, the constant strain on the upper body, caused by looking down on our devices, can lead to muscle fatigue and pain.

“The prolonged head forward (posture) during handheld device use puts sustained loads on our muscles and joints without enough breaks to offload the tissues in our neck, shoulders and upper back,” Wang says.

According to Dr. Jennifer V. Nash, a chiropractor and the Special Projects Coordinator for World Spine Day, the long-term effects of text neck can include frequent headaches and spinal disorders like chronic back or neck pain, scoliosis and disc disease. These effects can impact the ability to work, enjoy daily activities and sleep properly.

While text neck is a concern for most technology users, students — who make up what’s called Generation Z, or the technology-focused Internet generation — may be particularly susceptible because they are more likely to own and use smart devices for extended periods of time.

According to Margot Mostyn, a registered massage therapist at the Ryerson massage therapy clinic, neck pain, as well as upper back and shoulder pain, are some of the most common complaints she hears from students.

She said that while many students probably do suffer from text neck, many of them don’t reference their smart device habits as the reason for their discomfort.

“I don’t have any clients who come in and specifically complain about neck pain due to texting,” she says. “Rather, they may talk about sitting at the computer for too long, or studying for extended periods of time and therefore complain about pain in their neck and shoulders.”

Massage therapy treatments such as trigger point therapy can significantly help to relieve neck tension and tension in shoulder muscles. Other measures that can either prevent or relieve text neck include practicing proper sitting posture by having your back rest flat against the back of your chair, or raising your handheld device closer to eye level to avoid the need to look down.

Wang emphasizes that the key to lessening the effects of text neck is to change positions frequently. He recommends that students take mini-stretching breaks every 10 to 15 minutes.

Students experiencing neck and back pain can book an appointment with any registered massage therapist, including Ryerson’s massage therapy clinic located at the Mattamy Athletics Centre. Under the RSU health plan, full-time students are covered for up to $25 per treatment session, for a maximum of $500 per school year.

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