by Dr. Andrea Ignacio

Many of us wake up in the morning and immediately check our phone, just for a few seconds or minutes. Then a few seconds later…we do it again. Think about how many times this happens between waking and bed time – and not just with our phones, but also watches, keyboards, books, tablets, the newspaper…

According to Tecmark, a UK digital services company, the average user user picks up their smartphone 221 times a day.  That’s over 3 hours of looking down, approximately once every four minutes for up to 16 hours straight.  It’s called addictive for a reason. That means the average person will spend almost 1200 hours, or 50 DAYS of their year looking down at a screen.

Did you know your head gets heavier the more forward you bend it?

And the muscles that have to hold it up aren’t designed to support the weight…

Repetitive Use Injuries

One 2011 study shows a relationship between mobile device use and musculoskeletal neck pain.  Another study the following year highlighted the poor posture frequently associated with mobile device usage. It’s best to remember that our body will adapt to our habits, so over time posture will deteriorate simply from what we think are only intermittent periods of looking down.

Despite “text thumb” being a condition commonly brought up in relation to using phones, smartphone use is a full body activity. When the head is bent down – looking at a phone we’re holding up with our hands – the sternocleidomastoid, deep neck flexors, pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, masseter, and erector spinae all contract. Chronic over-use of these muscles can trigger neurogenic inflammation possibly leading to motor muscle inhibition. Why Is This Bad?

Something called neurogenic inflammation begins with nerve impulses which cause the release of inflammatory substances from the sensory nerves at the point of injury.  Long term chronic inflammation and pain can lead your body to try to protect itself through muscle spasms, building fibrous tissue, shortening of muscles to brace sensitive areas.  An example of an increase of fibrous tissue would be trigger points, which can lead to compression of blood vessels, which leads to nociception, which is a nerve’s reaction to the chemicals that irritate it.

Neurogenic inflammation is the chemical mix that irritates the nerve that controls muscle. This causes muscle to become inhibited and forces adaptation of the musculoskeletal system, leading to long- term decline in the quality of mechanics.  Down the road, this weakness of muscle changes the biomechanics of that entire area of the body or more.

The main cause of motor inhibition is long term neurogenic inflammation released by the sensory nerves to inhibit the motor nerves. Bending to look at a smartphone over a thousand times a week can not only contribute to but accelerate the onset of these issues.

Are Your Eyes Tired?

Use of mobile devices can also fatigue your visual system. Research in the Journal of Optometry and Vision Science looked at the average distances between our eyes and our various screens and how this impacted visual function.  When using a mobile phone or computer, we are between 12 and 14 inches away from the screen whereas the typical working distance when reading printed text is 16 inches. This places heightened demands on the ability of our eyes to correct for distance.

Added to this increasing concern about the effects of increased exposure to harmful blue-violet light which at the very least can cause problems with sleep patterns when used late at night.

Many hand held devices use LEDs that can emit about 35 percent blue-violet light, says Dr. Otto Lee OD. “Normal visible light that we can detect ranges from 380 nm to 780 nm. UVA, UVB, and UVC ranges from 315 to 1000 nm and can damage human tissue, including the eyes.” This raises the risk of developing cataracts and macular degeneration.

Lens manufacturers have developed lenses that block out harmful blue-violet light without altering image clarity and color and there are some supplements which can support eye health; however as always prevention is better than cure. 

Prevention is Key!

Tips:

  • Limit time (yours and your kids!) in front of screens
  • Limit time looking down at devices
  • Take frequent breaks
  • Find smartphones you can hold and type with using only one hand.
  • Get in the habit of utilizing voice dictation and auto-text
  • Download the tool called f.lux, which manages and modifies the light color quality from your computer throughout the day.

Appl Ergon. 2011 Jan;42(2):371-8. doi: 10.1016/j.apergo.2010.08.010. Epub 2010 Sep 15. Musculoskeletal symptoms among mobile hand-held device users and their relationship to device use: A preliminary study in a Canadian university population. Berolo S1Wells RPAmick BC 3rd.

Appl Ergon. 2012 Mar;43(2):408-12. doi: 10.1016/j.apergo.2011.06.015. Epub 2011 Jul 20. Postures, typing strategies, and gender differences in mobile device usage: an observational study. Gold JE1Driban JBThomas NChakravarty TChannell VKomaroff E.

Optom Vis Sci. 2011 Jul;88(7):795-7. doi: 10.1097/OPX.0b013e3182198792. Font size and viewing distance of handheld smart phones. Bababekova Y1Rosenfield MHue JEHuang RR.

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