That Smart Phone Is Messing With Your Kid’s Head.

And it’s not doing a lot for yours, either.

By Dan Hellman

Your smart phone could be harming you, and it has nothing to do with microwaves, phishing or robo calls. It doesn’t have anything to do with the World Health Organization’s recent warning about the effects of screen time on young children, either. In fact, it’s not so much your smart phone that’s causing the problems. It’s the way you use it, and the problem is Smart Phone Syndrome.

Smart Phone Syndrome (SPS), or Text Neck Syndrome as I call it, has become a significant problem worldwide, producing harmful effects on the human body, and in numbers that have startled the medical community. What is worse, the number of sufferers grows every day as mobile devices proliferate and perform more functions. Once we sent simple messages on our cell phones. Then our phones got “smart,” and we started emailing, surfing the net and using social media. Now we use them to stream full-length movies, pay bills, play games, start our cars and keep our homes secure. All of this means more and more time spent in front of a small screen.

What is Smart Phone Syndrome?

The medical community has adopted the term SPS to describe the repeated stress to the body (especially the neck) caused by excessive use of handheld electronic devices with the head in a compromised position. The most common symptoms are pain in the neck, shoulders, back, arms, hands and fingers, as well as persistent headaches.

The syndrome usually begins in the cervical spine (neck) with the repeated stress of frequent forward head flexion while looking down at the screen of a handheld device for long periods. Worse yet, SPS can be the direct cause of many other conditions because the entire body is connected via fascia.

Specifically, the fascial link means that SPS can eventually lead to a variety of negative health issues, such as:

  • Pain and discomfort of the temporomandibular joints (TMJ)
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Arthritis
  • Disc injury
  • Thoracic and lumbar spine pathology
  • Decreased lung volume
  • Gastrointestinal problems like constipation
  • Circulatory problems due to compression of the heart and other vital blood vessels
  • Decreased efficiency of the immune system due to the altered pumping of lymph.

Will my head fall off?

No, SMS won’t cause your head to fall off, except theoretically, but let’s talk about what happens with your head, which is the crux of the problem. The average human head weighs 10-12 pounds. As bipeds who walk upright, we are built to hold the head on top of our shoulders. Our neck and back muscles were not designed to hold the head forward for long periods, like the muscles of a dog or a horse. For us humans, frequent forward flexion causes changes in the cervical spine curve, resulting in a straight cervical spine or even a reverse of curve. This directly affects the supporting ligaments, tendons and muscles.

As an experiment, hold a 12-pound weight in your hands straight out in front of you and notice how quickly your arms become tired. Then imagine that your neck muscles are experiencing that strain. The neck muscles strain and tire when we use a mobile device because the effective weight of the head on the neck increases as the head is angled down, in the following progression, with the normal position of the head at 0 degrees:

0° = 12 lbs., 15° = 27 lbs., 30° = 40 lbs., 45° = 49 lbs. 60° = 60 lbs.

At 60 pounds, or an angle of 60° (see the illustration below), you are effectively carrying an 8-year old child around your neck, potentially for several hours a day.

cell phone use can cause neck damage
Bending the neck forward while reading mobile devices can have the effect of carrying a heavy weight around the neck.

A Global Problem Now Affecting Children

SPS is a problem because 75% of the world’s population—some four billion people—spends significant time hunched over their handheld devices daily, with their heads flexed forward. U.S. adults spent an average of 3 hours, 35 minutes per day on mobile devices in 2018, an increase of more than 11 minutes over 2017, and marketers predict that mobile will surpass TV in 2019 as the medium attracting the most viewer minutes in the U.S. Many of us also lead increasingly sedentary, computer-using, television-watching lifestyles. Combined, these factors create the perfect recipe for a life of pain and dysfunction.

SPS is real, and I see it every day in my profession. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just affect adults; it is affecting children at an alarming rate as they are introduced to mobile devices at younger and younger ages. Parents should pay particular attention to their children’s forward head posture. If you notice that your child’s head seems to drop forward of his or her body, you should act quickly to correct the problem. A skilled physical therapist can help you.

How do you correct forward head posture?

At H3 by Dan Hellman, we measure forward head posture using the device pictured here, which was developed by my mentor Paul Chek. Normal forward head posture using this device is 0-3 cm. In the last several years, I have measured people whose normal forward head posture had increased to a worrisome 7 to 8 cm. 

Once we know the extent of the problem, we can set about to correct it. First, we may use manual therapy to pump and lubricate the cervical spine, followed by specific stretches to elongate the short, tight muscles, and then corrective exercise to strengthen the long, weak muscles.  When we follow these techniques with proprioception and ELDOA exercises, the results are amazing.

The first and most important step, however, is to develop new habits that will change your daily ergonomics. Holding the smart phone higher and

using proper sitting mechanics are of utmost importance for the corrective exercise to be effective. Click this link for an easy office ergonomics guide.

If you think you may have an SMS-related problem or would like to learn more, please contact us for a free consultation. We’re here to help.

Problems of the neck and cervical spine can be corrected with physical therapy that includes this ELDOA exercise.

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