Is the Smartphone Ruining Our Spines?

Dec. 31, 2014

Dr. JohnsonNASS
Dr. Evan Johnson presenting at North American Spine Society 29th Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Evan Johnson, DPT, director of physical therapy at The Spine Hospital at The Neurological Institute of New York, treats an ever increasing number of patients with neck and back pain; and it is no coincidence that he also has a lot of conversations about computer, tablet, and smartphone use these days.

The undeniable relationship between our increasing technology use and problems of the spine has become a hot topic among physical therapists and other spine specialists.

Nowhere was this conversation more in swing than at the recent annual meeting of the North American Spine Society (NASS). There, Dr. Johnson led many of the discussions with a lecture on this very subject.

He began his talk, “Mechanical Pain and Postural Syndromes: The iPhone Generation,” with some disturbing news: beginning in the 1990s and early 2000s, researchers began to see a significant increase in neck, shoulder and back pain in adolescents; and it’s a trend that has only gotten worse.

This news coincides with a huge upswing in the amount of time adolescents and young adults are spending in front of some sort of screen–be it an iPhone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. Young people are accessing health care for back and musculoskeletal pain earlier than the previous generation.

According to a 2014 survey, young adults, ages 18 to 24, spend more than eight hours a day, on average, in front of a screen (not including TV). This same survey also revealed that young people, by their own admission, slouch more during this screen time; older adults reportedly were more inclined to attempt to sit up straight.

All this points to the obvious recommendation to cut back on screen time. That is optimal, but with the demands of school, work, and an increasing reliance on social media, it is easier said than done. “How we hold our bodies while we interact with these devices is, however, very much under our control,” says Dr. Johnson. “Posture re-education is key to decreasing the incidence of back, shoulder, and neck pain.”

In his talk, Dr. Johnson explained how posture is both a problem of habit and a problem of muscular imbalances around the neck and back. He recommended teaching patients to practice the basics of good posture, as well as teaching them how to stretch and strengthen muscles around the neck and back.

Dr. Johnson demonstrated several beneficial exercises including chin tucks and pelvic tilts. You can see these, and a whole bunch more of his recommended postural exercises, in our video series here. He also reviewed the basics of good posture and workstation tips, which you can learn more about here.

One of the simplest ways to prevent back and neck pain while using technological devices, says Dr. Johnson, is to introduce rest breaks. He recommends taking micro-breaks every fifteen minutes for about 30 seconds. These involve resting your eyes and performing a few gentle stretches where you are. Every hour, he says, you should get up out of your seat, walk around or switch tasks completely.

Spine pain in adolescence is also now considered a strong predictor of chronic back pain later in life. In patients over 65, low back pain and spine-related neurological symptoms are among the most common musculoskeletal conditions resulting in physician visits and surgery.

Dr. Johnson was especially busy at this year’s NASS meeting: He also gave a lecture on spinal issues in the elderly; he was appointed the first allied health (non-physician) member to sit on the NASS membership committee; and he was a panelist for a discussion on “Inter-professional Referrals and Care Collaboration in Spine Care.”

As a well known spine expert, this is not the first time that Dr. Johnson has been invited to speak at the NASS annual meeting. He has presented a different talk for each of the last four years (you can learn more about his other talks below).

Learn more about Dr. Evan Johnson on his bio page here.


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