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Smartphones: More than Just a Pain in the Neck


A majority of the world’s 3.4 billion smartphone users are putting their necks at risk every time they send a text, according to new research involving the University of South Australia, released on January 15. ‘Text neck,’ as it is called, places stress on the spine and alters the neck’s natural curve, increasing the likelihood of associated soft tissue discomfort.

A recent international, Ergonomic risk assessment of smartphone users using the Rapid Upper Limb Assessment (RULA) tool, underscores the high ergonomic risks to smartphone users, particularly young people who experience neck pain earlier than previous generations. RULA has been used to assess the ergonomic impacts of desktop computers and laptops in the past, but this is believed to be the first time the tool has been used to assess ergonomic risk levels of excessive smartphone use.

Researchers from Khon Kaen University in Thailand video-recorded 30 smartphone users in Thailand aged between 18 to 25 years old who spend up to eight hours a day on their phones. Using RULA to measure ergonomic risk levels, they found that the average score for the participants was six, compared to an acceptable score of between one to two. “The results identified issues with unsuitable neck, trunk and leg postures which lead to musculoskeletal disorders,” concluded lead researcher Suwalee Namwongsa.

Dr Rose Boucaut, a University of South Australia physiotherapist involved in the paper, said the awkward postures adopted by smartphone users can adversely affect the soft tissues. “Smartphone users typically bend their neck slightly forward when reading and writing text messages. They also sometimes bend or twist their neck sideways and put their upper body and legs in awkward positions,” Dr Boucaut said. “These postures put uneven pressure on the soft tissues around the spine that can lead to discomfort.”

In a separate study entitled Factors Associated with Neck Disorders Among University Student Smartphone Users published in January, the same researchers surveyed 779 Thai university students who use smartphones. Of this number, 32 per cent reported experiencing neck pain, 26 per cent shoulder pain, 20 per cent upper back pain and 19 per cent wrist and hand pain. Musculoskeletal disorders were more common among students with higher smartphone use of more than five hours a day and those who smoked and exercised little. Female smartphone users also experienced far more musculoskeletal disorders than men at 71 per cent, compared to 28 per cent.

The disparity in musculoskeletal disorders experienced by women was confirmed by a study out of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, released in June 2018. Women were twice more likely to experience musculoskeletal symptoms during iPad use than men. Posture — not screen time — is the biggest factor behind neck and shoulder pain. The pain disparity among genders might be explained by size and movement differences. According to the study, women tend to have lower muscle strength and smaller stature that might lead them to assume extreme neck and shoulder postures while typing.

 The lead author of the Las Vegas study offered these tips to prevent iPad neck:

 Sit with in a chair with back support

  • Use a posture-reminder device: Wearable devices that adhere to the skin or clip on to clothing will beep when the wearer is slouching.
  • Take a stand: Place the iPad on a stand rather than a flat surface, and attach a keyboard to achieve a more upright posture when using the tablet.
  • Exercise to strengthen neck and shoulder muscles: This is particularly important for women who experience neck and shoulder pain.

Jean Lian is the editor of OHS Canada.