According to the Pew Research Foundation, as of 2015, 66% of people in the U.S. own a smart phone. Smart phones allow one to access the internet, communicate with someone you can actually see, play games, send text messages, and make phone calls. Facetime, Skype, and Facebook Messenger were the stuff of fantasy when I was a kid growing up watching Get Smart and reading Dick Tracy. Maxwell Smart communicated using his oh-so-fashionable mobile shoe phone, while Dick Tracy contacted other law enforcement officers using his high-tech watch – no one thought it would actually be real one day. What they didn’t talk about, however, was how the use of such modern masterpieces of technology could affect us physically and socially, or whether our bodies could keep up with this new-fangled stuff.
Are you an avid texter? Clearly, the biggest problem with texting and health is that it distracts drivers and can cause accidents. Currently, 46 states, DC and three territories have bans on texting and driving. Maybe you’re not texting, but you love all those games you can play on your phone. Do your thumbs, hands, and/or elbows hurt or tingle? There might be a connection. There is added stress and strain on the thumbs if you use them for the repetitive motion of pressing those tiny little buttons. If your elbows are bent while holding your phone, it can cause pressure on the tunnel around a nerve that runs through the elbow into the hand, causing numbness, tingling and pain.
How about your neck, upper back and shoulders? If you are experiencing pain there, it could also be related to texting/smart phone use – it’s commonly known nowadays as “text neck” (LOL). Our necks and upper backs are not meant to be angled downward and slumped forward as they are when many people are looking at their cell phones. The average cell phone user spends 2-4 hours a day looking at the screen. Chronic neck and back misalignment can lead to pain in those same areas or can spread to other areas. For example, headaches can be caused by something gone awry in your neck.
There is some real concern on the part of health care researchers that this slumped-over posture could cause hyperkyphosis (think Hunchback of Notre Dame) – an exaggeration of the typical rounding of the back we see in elderly people. This abnormal posture can also lead to herniated discs (the cushion between the bones in the spine get pushed out which causes pressure on the nerves). This can be extremely painful and, if severe enough, may require back surgery.
It even appears that our breathing can be compromised by being consistently in a bent-over position. If air isn’t moving easily in and out of the lungs, there is more risk of pneumonia and other chronic lung diseases. Is your vision blurry or do your eyes feel exceptionally dry after you’ve been looking at your phone for long amounts of time? Chances are pretty good you may have Digital Eye Strain/Computer Vision Syndrome. These eye symptoms may occur in conjunction with the neck, back and shoulder problems mentioned above. How about your quality of sleep? Melatonin is a hormone that helps us sleep. The type of light emitted by cell phones (and other screens) gives us signals that it’s time to wake up instead of go to sleep, making our brains produce less of the Melatonin we need for a restful night’s sleep.
And what about stress? How do you feel when your text isn’t answered immediately? Does it leave you wondering what’s up on the receiving end of your message? Is your friend not getting your texts, mad at you, or just not answering? Did they misunderstand what you were trying to say in that clipped language you use for texting? Sometimes, the more we try to communicate, the more we seem to mis-communicate, and end up feeling stressed and less connected!
So, what’s a smart phone owner to do? Luckily, there are things we can do to prevent and treat these issues. Use your non-dominant hand (if you’re right handed, use your left hand) or use your index finger instead of your thumb when texting or playing games. If your thumb(s) already hurt, try taking a break from your phone for a few days and take anti-inflammatory medicine like Ibuprofen or aspirin, if you’re not allergic to it. If you are still in pain, you may need to visit an orthopedic specialist for an evaluation. One of the treatments could be an injection of cortisone into the joint to relieve the inflammation. If your difficulty is more with your elbows, splints might be helpful to keep the elbow from bending and putting pressure on the nerve.
This is the part where I sound like your mother – stand up straight! As soon as you realize you are slouching or your head is angled down, change your position. Take some deep breaths. And put your phone away at least one hour before going to sleep. According to the American Optometric Association, to alleviate symptoms of Computer Vision Syndrome, they recommend the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
If you are particularly sensitive to and stressed by the number of texts you receive, the amount of time between texts, or by the way a text sounds when you read it, try using more emojis or asking about the real meaning of messages. This can be especially sensitive and may best be done by actually talking to the person. Many times, texts or emails can come across as sounding rude or mean; emojis can help take the edge off. If you write something sarcastic, understand that it may come across as harsh, even though you intended for it to sound funny or cute. Smiley faces can sometimes soften what’s being said.
Overall, technology is your friend. It makes your life easier in so many ways, but those benefits, like anything else, usually come at a price. So, no, our bodies haven’t adapted to all this technology yet – so smarten up your body by paying attention to what it’s telling you when your use your smart phone, computer or tablet. Trust me, you ARE smarter than your phone, so start acting like it!