Be Smart About Using Your Smart Device

Texting and consulting our smartphones has become a way of life. Wherever we go, we see people walking along the street bent over their phone, or seated at coffee shops and cafes, phone in hand, busily texting and checking email. The convenience of instant connection via phone may be a boon to communication, but it is not necessarily a benefit to our spine’s health. The sight of people texting with their heads hunched forward and their shoulders drooping prompted a spinal and orthopedic surgeon in New York to investigate the impact of “texting posture” on our body. What he discovered may surprise you.

When we hold our head up in an erect position, we are placing about 10 to 12 pounds of pressure on our neck. However, as we tilt our head forward in the act of texting, the amount of pressure on our cervical spine increases dramatically. Tilting our head forward by 60 degrees—which is not an unusual texting position—can put as much as 60 pounds of pressure on our neck. Hunched texting postures are causing neck pain for some patients. Over time, these postures may lead to early wear and tear, degeneration of the cervical spine, and possibly surgery.

“Technology is part of our life,” says Dr. Nick Wills, a back, neck and spine specialist at Summit Orthopedics, and a member of the Minnesota Occupational Health Preferred Provider Network. “Patients shouldn’t see this study as discouraging the use of smart phones. But it is important to be aware of your posture as you use your smartphone to respond to a text, get directions, or locate a nearby lunch spot.”

If you are an avid smart phone user, consider doing the following exercises once or twice a day to improve your posture and develop better physical habits while you use your phone:

  • Remember that your eyes have a range of motion. Practice looking down at your smartphone without tilting your entire head down.
  • Keep your neck joints limber. Take a break during your day to move your head from side to side several times and touch your ear to your shoulder on both sides.
  • A little resistance will strengthen neck ligaments and muscles. Place your hands on your forehead to provide resistance as you push your head forward, then put your hands on the back of your head and try to push your head back.
  • Stretch your arms and torso. Extend your arms to your sides as shoulder height, and push your chest forward. For a bit of extra resistance, perform this stretch in a doorway. This stretch helps to strengthen the muscles your body depends on for good posture.

With awareness of your head’s position as you use your smart phone, and a few minutes of dedicated time every day to improve your posture, you can reap the benefits of technology without paying a price in neck pain over time.

Basic Anatomy of the Spine

Our spine holds up our head, shoulders, and upper body. It helps us to stand up straight, gives us the flexibility to bend and twist, and protects the spinal cord. It is divided into three segments: the c-shaped curve of the cervical spine in the neck, the reverse c-shaped curve of the thoracic spine in the chest, and the c-shaped curve of the lumbar spine in the lower back.

Five unique components work together to compose the spine and maintain its function.

  • Vertebrae: These are the bones stacked from the lumbar through the cervical spine. They vary in size, and create a canal that protects the spinal cord and supports the body. The seven smallest vertebrae are in the cervical spine that begins at the base of the skull. Twelve larger vertebrae compose the thoracic spine and connect to the rib cage. The largest five vertebrae are in the lumbar spine, where they carry more of the body’s weight.
  • Spinal Cord: The spinal cord extends the entire length of the spine, traveling through the central canal in the middle of each stacked vertebra. Nerves branch out from the spinal cord through openings in the vertebrae to conduct messages between the brain and muscles. At the first and second lumbar vertebrae, the spinal cord continues as nerve roots that exit the spinal canal through vertebrae openings. Some form the sciatic nerves extending down into the legs.
  • Muscles and Ligaments: These tissues support and stabilize the spine and upper body. The ligaments connect the vertebrae, and hold the spinal column in place.
  • Intervertebral Discs: These flat round cushions sit between the vertebrae. They are supplied by nerve endings, and provide flexibility and strength. Because the discs are able to expand with movement, they allow for motion, and act as shock absorbers.
  • Facet Joints: These small joints at the back of the vertebrae have a cartilage surface, much like a knee or hip joint. These joints allow rotation of the spine, but may also develop arthritis, like any other joint.

When all of the components of the spine are healthy and working in concert, we can enjoy life with a full range of strong, flexible motion.