In today’s tech-obsessed society, medical professionals are seeing that the overuse of computers, smart phones, and tablets is leaving us with quite a few aches and pains. The saying “everything in moderation” is a good rule of thumb when it comes to life in general, but technology dependence specifically—particularly if you value the health of your thumbs, and several other body parts.
When cell phone use increased in the ‘90s, reports surfaced suggesting that regularly holding a communication device to your head could cause brain cancer. Fortunately, that frightening hypothesis has become little more than a myth. Dr. Terry Neill, a Critical Care Neurologist at Sacred Heart Hospital says that when it comes to brain tumors and cell phone use, “the majority of studies do not find an association.”
While our brains themselves—thankfully—appear to be safe from tech device harm, other areas might not be so fortunate. Eyes, necks, thumbs and elbows are just a few of the places overusing tech devices can create discomfort.
Physical problems linked directly to postures and motions associated with daily, prolonged computer use are now compounding, sometimes migrating to neighboring muscles, tendons and joints, with our increasingly constant attachments to technology.
The good news is experts say most of these ailments can be fixed simply by modifying daily habits. The solution, while seemingly simple, may be the most difficult for the tech addicted: Disconnect—at least look up and step away from the devices—for a little while each day.
Articles examining issues related to our reliance and, in some cases, addiction to digital screens abound online. The irony of reading from a computer screen about the dangers of reading from a computer screen isn’t lost here, but it speaks to what a predominant and unavoidable source of information the Internet is, the use of which is probably the overriding reason we have to worry about any of this to begin with.
According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), those who use a computer consecutively for more than two hours a day are at a higher risk of developing Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), which manifests itself in a number of ways, including dry eyes, blurred vision, headaches, and neck and shoulder pain.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) reports that humans typically blink 18 times a minute, but most people blink only half that much when using digital screen devices, contributing to eyestrain and other CVS symptoms.
The AAO suggests following the “20-20-20 Rule” to give eyes a break. For every 20 minutes you look at a screen, look up or over at an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. The professional organization also recommends fixes as simple as keeping a note that reads, “Blink!” taped to your monitor as a reminder.
If you’re thinking reading glasses might be a quick fix for blurred vision, don’t be so fast to slip on a pair. The AOA advises visiting an eye doctor before making a purchase, as often glasses made for reading are different from what you need to prevent or improve vision issues associated with computer use.
For adults, luckily, the effects of CVS typically aren’t permanent if a patient takes steps to rest eyes regularly. The eventual consequences for children haven’t been fully spelled out yet, but doctors at Wisconsin’s Vision Therapy Center suggest limiting preschoolers’ digital screen time to 15 minutes a day, as their eyes and related cognitive functions—i.e. depth perception—are developing.
No surprise, recent studies also suggest children spend time outdoors each day, as natural light can help curb the development of nearsightedness and other more severe conditions later in life. It’s also a good idea for adults, considering being outside allows eyes to gravitate to and focus on things in the distance, instead of the screens we hold so closely.
More Than Bad Posture
Neck and back pain are a symptom of CVS, but are also serious indicators of too much time spent looking down. Lindsey Jeudevine, D.C. of Olde Seville Chiropractic has been in practice for almost five years. In that time, he has seen “a tremendous increase” in the physical effects of prolonged tablet and smart phone use.
“With the easy access of iPads and tablets, and also people getting more connected with smart phones… with touch screens, people are looking down so much more,” Jeudevine said. The forward head posture that results from looking down for large parts of the day was formerly known as “Scholar’s Neck,” in reference to those who kept heads bowed while reading and writing. Now Americans of all walks of life spend significant portions of their day looking down as they text, browse, or watch video via handheld devices.
Jeudevine estimates that 90 percent of the problems he sees are related to too much time on a computer, phone, or tablet with poor posture.
“You can look at someone from the side and tell exactly what their symptoms are going to be from their posture,” said Jeudevine, who hears complaints of headaches, neck pain, ringing in the ears, upper back pain, and numbness in the hands and arms most frequently.
Those symptoms are commonly associated with Upper Cross Syndrome, a condition affecting muscles of the neck and shoulders. “If you look down all the time, the muscles of the neck that connect into the upper back have to work and engage much more heavily to, basically, keep the head from falling down into your lap,” Jeudevine explained.
In a healthy neutral posture, a person’s head and chin should be aligned over their shoulders and pelvis. For every inch a head extends forward from that neutral alignment, Jeudevine said, effectively an extra 10 pounds is added to the weight that the muscles of the neck are supporting.
“All of that extra weight with the forward head posture rounds the back and limits the lung space, so you can have a reduction of up to 30 percent of lung capacity with this,” Jeudevine said. “People are breathing worse, they’re moving worse, and are having more symptoms because of all of this stuff.”
Jeudevine says there are steps, usually related to bringing eyes and heads up, that people can take to lessen symptoms. Number one is holding your phone up to text instead of bringing your eyes down to your phone, just don’t hold it too close to your eyes. Stands are another option Jeudevine recommends especially for long blog-reading sessions or binge watching Netflix. Other tips include raising your computer monitor so you’re looking up at it just slightly, and for every 30 minutes you sit down, take at least one to five minutes to stretch neck muscles slowly, looking down up, and side to side.
Without making changes to our habits, Jeudevine believes that eventually our bodies will reshape themselves to accommodate our behaviors. “There’s no way the body can keep this up for an extended period of time without mutating,” Jeudevine said. “Either everyone is going to hurt forever, or the body is going to change and we know that the body is so smart, it is going to change.”
Mouse Elbow—It’s Real
If you’ve ever thought the tapping, scrolling, and clicking you do may be wearing on your hand, wrist or arm, you’re suspicions are confirmed. “Upper extremity overuse syndromes are making a comeback with modern day technology,” reports Jerome Enad, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon with West Florida Medical Group.
Among the most common tech-related problems, Enad says he and other orthopedists are seeing a rise in “DeQuervain’s Tendonitis,” formerly caused by gripping activities involved in manual labor or in mothers flexing their hands while carrying a child in their arms.
“Pain and swelling of the tendons at the bottom of the thumb would occur as the wrist would be overused and become inflamed. Now, we see DeQuervain’s in many people as an overuse syndrome from using smartphones and texting—same tendons, same inflammation, different activity that caused it,” explained Enad.
Surprisingly, Enad says physicians are not seeing an increase of patients with carpal tunnel syndrome. “Probably because the main nerve is not being compressed with this type of finger motion,” he said, pointing out that other older conditions are being re-named as they become more related to tech gadgets.
While several years ago the term “Tennis Elbow” was a common phrase for outer-elbow tendonitis, these days the condition is often labeled “Mouse Elbow,” indicating the new culprit in its development. “The muscles of the wrist and forearm that help you grab, click, and maneuver the mouse attach to the lateral elbow and can frequently become inflamed with overuse,” Enad explained. “We also use these muscles for driving, eating, reaching, et cetera, so it is difficult to give them the proper rest they need.”
Mallet Finger, a type of tendonitis also known as “Baseball Finger,” is also prevalent once again. “Touch screens can cause tendonitis at the tip of the finger if striking the screen too hard, or can also cause finger sprains at the fingertip.” Like other conditions that were formerly caused by much more demanding activities, what was once dangerous to those catching baseballs could now affect anyone aggressively tapping a screen, indoors or out.
If you experience pain in your elbows, wrists, and hands, Enad suggests seeing a doctor who can give you tips, sometimes braces, for reducing pressure on the affected areas. Though cortisone shots and surgery are the last ditch treatments for severe, persistent cases, Enad, like others, says there is hope for those who will slow or moderate their usage, “Fortunately, all of these ‘modern day technology’ conditions can usually be treated by decreasing the amount of time spent on the activity that caused them.”