DAKOTA DUNES | Tablets, laptops and smartphones topped Christmas wishlists this year. But if used too frequently, these high-tech gadgets could become a big pain in the neck.
Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults planned to give such gadgets as gifts, according to the Consumer Electronics Association's 2014 CE Holiday Purchase Patterns Study. As more people hunch over their electronic devices, complaints of head, neck, shoulder and back pain rise.
Terry Anderson, owner of T&T Cell Phone Repair in Sioux City, said customers often complain of headaches, soreness in the neck and shoulders, and tingling sensations in arms and hands while using mobile devices for extended periods of time.
Anderson estimates that he uses a mobile device three to four hours a day, but he said he has been able to stay symptom-free by regularly shifting his position.
"I try to be aware of how I'm sitting, because over the years I've been using a computer and sat a desk for so long," he said. "I keep myself aware of cramping and repetitive motion and doing what I can to make sure that I don't spend too terribly an amount of time doing one activity without moving."
Jeremy Poulsen, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist at the Siouxland Pain Clinic, said the term "text neck" was coined in 2008. But the correlation between device use and pain has only recently been made. As tablet usage has surged, Poulsen said, he has seen more patients complaining of headaches and neck pain. He does more trigger point injections in those areas, he said.
"People who were voracious readers, they would have these symptoms," he said. "Now it's becoming more prevalent with people looking down at their phones."
The natural curve of the neck is C-shaped. As a person looks down, the neck loses that curvature. Over time, this static position flattens or reverses that natural curve.
"That can lead to arthritic issues in the joints of the spine. It can lead to issues with the discs, which then leads to impingement of the nerves," he said. "Additionally it can lead to spasming of the neck muscles."
According to a 2013 IDC research report sponsored by Facebook, 79 percent of people who use smartphones have the devices with them 22 hours a day.
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"If those nerves are constantly being impinged by the muscles spasming and pulling, that leads to conditions such as occipital neuralgia -- basically it's headaches that can be miserable," Poulsen said.
The piercing and throbbing of occipital neuralgia typically begins in the neck and spreads upward into the back of the head and behind the ears. Some people might feel pain in their scalp, forehead and behind their eyes.
Poulsen said hunching over a device also impairs a person's ability to take in oxygen.
Abbi Boutwell, a physical therapist at Mercy Medical Center, said studying and reading a book will put the same strain on a person's neck as texting, playing video games or typing on a computer. She said patients experiencing neck pain and headaches often say their symptoms are more intense after using a tablet, gaming device or smartphone.
"Sometimes we'll see an increase in wrist or hand pain because they're holding the device and using their thumbs more than they normally would," she said. "People who maybe have had a (device) and it's become part of their daily routine don't necessarily single that out as a factor that could be causing part of their pain."
PREVENTION IS THE BEST MEDICINE
Stretching exercises and physical therapy are often recommended as treatments for "text neck." Poulsen said heat, ibuprofen and injections may relieve pain. He recommends lying on the floor and placing a rolled-up towel under the small of the neck two to three times a day for 15 minutes.
After evaluating a patient's range of motion and muscle strength in the neck, arms and shoulders, Boutwell assesses standing and sitting posture. The plan of cure Boutwell devises is different for each patient, but often consists of stretching tight muscles and educating the patient about proper posture and taking breaks from static positions.
"You want to get out of it and move around, do some gentle motion stretching," she said. "A break can be anywhere from 30 seconds. It can be a minute. Especially if you've been at your computer or using your device, take a quick break. Just stretch your wrist, arms or your neck out."
In addition to holding a device at eye level, Boutwell recommends supporting arms on a chair arm rest. Place a tablet on a document holder to free up your arms.
Boutwell said breaking the bad habit of looking down at devices can be difficult. She suggests setting a timer to remind yourself to take a break.