—How bad posture while using devices may be causing you chronic pain.
There’s an episode of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” that follows Kim Kardashian as she investigates a mysterious pain in her wrist. The pain is so sudden and severe, that when she lifts her phone to text or take a selfie, her wrist can barely support the weight of her five-ounce iPhone.
Kim’s inability to hold her phone is a devastating blow, one that ultimately motivates her to employ an on-set camera operator as her official selfie-taker. The camera-woman takes Kim’s phone and sets up the picture, as Kim lets her hand hover near the screen to give the illusion that she is taking the selfie.
After several days of this routine, Kim realizes the pain has become chronic and makes an appointment to see an orthopedic surgeon. Sitting in the orthopedist’s office after her physical exam, Kim is informed that what she’s experiencing is likely phone-induced carpal tunnel—a modern phenomenon that, her doctor says, the medical community has already named in her honor: Kardashian Wrist.
This name—while cute—certainly gives the impression that in order to get a phone-related injury you must be a social media-obsessed, selfie-taking socialite—but that is just not so. The average, non-Kardashian person in America spends roughly four hours a day on their phone. That’s a quarter of our waking hours and, ultimately, 60 days per year spent looking down.
Screen time numbers are higher for young people and higher still during vacations and holidays. Add to that the amount of time we spend on our other devices, like iPads and laptops, and you are looking at an honestly uncomfortable amount of time; the implications of which go beyond questions like: ‘is a life lived through screens a life worth living?’
The amount of time we spend on our screens has real effects on our health, which is why device-related injuries have become an epidemic. I, myself, am writing this article on my phone while taking the A train downtown. You know the position: hands gripped around my phone, phone and hands placed on my lap, neck craned down, eyes glued to Google Docs. As I lift my head, my neck cracks—its subtle way of letting me know it didn’t appreciate the near-right angle it was forced into for the last 10 minutes.
For advice on how I could avoid injuring myself any further, I spoke with Asit Shah, MD, Chief of Orthopedic Surgery at Englewood Health; who let me know this epidemic is less about how much time we’re on our devices and more about posture.
“The parts of the body that are most affected by poor posture are your neck and your lower back. When you are looking down at your phone or computer all day, your back is in a permanent state of flex and enormous tension is being put on your muscles,” Dr. Shah said.
Sixty pounds worth of tension to be exact. A study in the Journal of Surgical Technology found that bending your head to look at your phone puts 60 pounds of pressure on your cervical spine, compared to just 10 pounds of pressure when your back is straight—making it no wonder why back pain is the leading cause of disability in America.
“The advice I give my patients who work at computers or on their phones all day is that they should treat themselves like high-performance athletes. If you were a track runner, keeping good form would be an important part of keeping your body safe while you work. Working at a desk all day takes endurance and causes wear-and-tear on the body too—just in different ways,” Dr. Shah said.
Dr. Shah has observed fixing bad posture to be harder than quitting smoking for some of his patients. The reason for this is twofold: first, because posture is a behavior that is often unconscious and, second, because keeping a straight back requires that we engage muscles that many of us have a difficult time accessing.
“One good way to start developing these muscles is to practice in the car. When you’re sitting at a red light, press your head and neck into the headrest. If you do this regularly, you’ll activate those muscles and it will become easier to take that same position at your desk or at home,” Dr. Shah said.
As for Kardashian wrist, Dr. Shah recommends going hands-free as much as possible. Small adjustments to the way you use your phone can go a long way: like keeping your phone in your pocket or bag rather than holding it constantly, using both hands to text, rather than hyperextending the fingers on your dominant hand and placing your phone in a cradle while FaceTiming.
“If you work at a desk, keep your screen above eye-level so you’re forced to extend your neck. Take breaks, stretch, go for short walks and stay hydrated—because the disk spaces in your back require lots of water in order to function properly. If your job offers a standing-desk option, take it. If you work from home, put your computer on the kitchen counter and stand while you type.”
Dr. Shah sees first-hand the physical effects of an economy that forces Americans to work longer hours under increasingly stressful circumstances. While we may not all be Kardashians, for many of us, those circumstances still include hours of sitting down, hunched over our devices. When it comes to working in America, we know the status quo won’t change overnight, but you can protect yourself in the meantime by working on your form.