In today’s society the terms smart phone neck, text thumb and dormant laptop butt all unfortunately mean something to us. It is a sad world when we have a nick name for being stuck to a screen too long.
The prevailing wisdom has been that by being in these long standing postures we put a lot of load and tension on our bodily structures. If we are looking down at a smartphone or tablet, the muscles and ligaments at the back of our neck become stretched, and the ones at the front become short. Over a long period of time, these ligaments and structures undergo a process the medical world calls ”creep.’
Creep by its very nature sounds bad. And for many years’ doctors, physios and chiropractors did everything they possibly could to scare the living daylights out of us that these scenarios should be seriously avoided because it can lead to a lifetime of pain and disability.
However, the hard evidence doesn’t really stack up. For centuries humans have been looking down at things with very little outcry. People working in rice paddies, chopping wood, knitting, even playing golf, all involve prolonged postures of the neck and spine which hasn’t created such a stir.
A landmark study by Australian researcher Peter O’Sullivan looked at this complex relationship of the spine in adolescents. We all know a teenager who slumps and spends a lot of time on the computer. This study looked at the association of how much teenagers slump and for how long, in relation to pain.
Surprisingly, there was a very weak link, if any at all to an increase in pain. What they did find was that pain is highly complex and is often much more related to non physical factors such as attitudes, beliefs and wellbeing.
Phrases like text neck create a good story and drive a lot of hype, but in the end they are just a sexy name to try to pique your interest. And sports physiotherapist Chris Jellis, from Sum of Us studio in Prahran, says it’s these stories that are actually doing much more harm than the screens
‘Text neck is another example of something that sounds right, but isn’t backed up by science. And for a while health care practitioners have been fanning the flames. You hear practitioners all the time tell patients things like your spine is crooked, abnormally curved or unstable, and it is this type of education that makes pain disorders worse.
In realty, the spine is really strong and robust, can handle a lot of load and was designed to bend and flex. So instead of scaring people about how to hold their back or neck we need to educate people to get moving.
Of course we don’t recommend you sit on a phone or computer for hours on end if you don’t have too. We want you to get out and get moving, like you were designed to do. But if you have to, for work or other reasons, don’t panic, your stronger than you think.
If you are in that situation, take a moment every half hour to stretch and move. One great exercise is to look straight ahead, and draw your chin inwards. This stretches out the back muscles in the head. Then, set out a plan to start doing some gentle exercise like yoga or pilates. This can give your spine the strength it needs.