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Text messaging – a pain in the neck?

The next time you’re out in public — the mall, the dog park, the doctor’s office — take a look around. How many people have their necks craned down while texting, checking emails or reading an e-book on the go? Chances are it won’t take long to spot a few, and that, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Chris Cornett says, can be a pain in the neck. Literally.

chris-cornettAccording to Cornett, a spine specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery and Rehabilitation, too much texting and e-reading means an excessive amount of leaning our heads down and forward while looking at our mobile devices. This can result in a condition called “text neck” – a growing concern for many in Cornett’s field. caught up with Cornett to ask him about the causes of this condition and how to avoid it.

What first interested you in this topic?

Over the last few years, I’ve encountered more and more people complaining of neck pain related to prolonged use of their mobile devices. I thought this was something worth focusing on.

What exactly is “text neck,” and what effect does it have on people?

That term was actually coined by a chiropractor in Florida. It basically refers to postural pain from holding your head in an abnormal position for too long while using a mobile device, including cellphones, digital music players, e-readers and computer tablets. When you hold your body in an abnormal position, it can increase stress on the muscles and cause fatigue, muscle spasms and even stress headaches.

Are there long-term effects? If so, are they reversible?

We do not know of any long-term effects right now. But what we do know is that the immediate effects can be quite painful. It’s not a dangerous condition or anything serious from a neurologic standpoint. It’s simply another way that we can get postural pain.

We've had hand-held devices for a few decades now, so why is this problem only showing up on the radar now?

I think it has been around for a while, but we certainly are increasing our use of these devices. People are just becoming more aware of the effect mobile devices have on us.

Some skeptical people out there may role their eyes at this notion, but have you actually had patients complain about this condition?

Yes, I have. I had a patient who spent hours on his iPad every day. He eventually came in with increased neck pain, and there was nothing else in his life that could have caused it. After modifying his use and doing some specific neck exercises, it completely improved.

What are some of the ways people can avoid “text neck”?

First of all, take frequent breaks. Don’t just sit there for hours at a stretch with your head tilted down toward your mobile device. Also, adjust the height and position of the device while you use it so you’re not always leaning your head down. And finally, keep in good shape with plenty of physical activity.

Are there any other technology-related conditions out there similar to “text neck” that people should be aware of?

This condition is related to any type of positional or postural pain that we can get from holding ourselves in a certain position for a long period of time. Anyone who has his or her head down for long stretches of time — hairdressers, mechanics, truck drivers — could experience a similar condition.

What does the future hold for this trend? Do you see it getting better or worse?

While we don’t know if something like this might predispose you to having disc problems or arthritis down the road, I suspect it’s mostly a short-term condition that will improve once you take steps to correct it. I think with our increased reliance on devices, it will only become more common and require us to be aware of the effect these devices have on our health.

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