Our obsession with smartphones and tablets is becoming a real pain
New technology is supposed to make improvements to our lives. With our tablets and smartphones we can now work on the move, find information instantly and be in constant contact.
But if your devotion to your gadget has started to be a pain in the neck — or the hand, the shoulder or the fingers, then you’re not alone, because our commitment to our devices has started to cause us repetitive strain injuries (RSI) — dubbed iPad shoulder, iPhone neck and the latest affliction, iPad hand.
“You get these problems from hunching over and holding a tablet like a plate and using your other arm to operate it without any support,” says Dr Tony Kochhar, consultant orthopaedic surgeon and shoulder, elbow, arm, hand and wrist specialist who set up the London RSI Clinic to deal with an increasing number of patients with RSI injuries.
“When you use a computer you put your forearm on the desk, so it is supported. But with a tablet you are suspending your arm in free air.
“You can get severe headaches from tension in the back of the neck; an aching from the tip of your shoulder down the upper, outer part of the arm; pain at the back of the wrist and fingers from continuously using them; or a pinched nerve,” says Kochhar, who is seeing six to 10 new patients a week with these types of injuries in a demographic that he says is “getting younger and younger because of the iPad and working while travelling”.
Kate Moss’s recent injury, a trapped ulnar nerve that caused her a temporary paralysis in one arm, is also a risk of using a tablet. “You could get this from using devices like the iPad if your posture is bad and if you are resting your arm on something unpadded and uncomfortable,” says Kochhar.
“Ultimately, you could suffer with a prolapsed disc,” he warns. “If it is very bad and remains untreated it can press on your spinal cord and you could end up incontinent or in a wheelchair.”
Noel Kingsley, who teaches the Alexander Technique, which aims to correct and realign posture without surgery, is equally concerned.
“If someone is sitting, dropping their head and neck downwards to peer at a screen, the head, which weighs four to five kilograms, is tugging down on your neck, putting you off balance and causing a lot of strain,” he says.
“If the back muscles are not working efficiently, then we will overcompensate by doing more with the hands, and constantly overstraining the hands will lead to RSI, joint pain and arthritis in the future.
“If you want a more permanent solution you need to realign your whole posture. You will get temporary relief from physiotherapy but if you revert to bad habits, the pain will return.”
Kochhar agrees: “With any new gadget, look after yourself first. Use them in the correct posture, take regular breaks, regular stretches and look out for the warning signs.”
Try the Alexander Technique
My mother recently chided me as I checked my smartphone. “You’ll become one of those women who looks at her phone more often than her children,” she said.
I’m not there yet but my phone fixation has started to cause me a pain in the neck. My yoga teacher tells me the bones at the top of my spine are jutting out after years of dropping my chin to my chest and slumping my shoulders forward to examine my emails.
A visit to Alexander Technique teacher Noel Kingsley confirms that throughout the day I’m making my neck and shoulders work far harder than they need to. Carry on like this and I’m risking injury or a severely warped spine as I get older.
Kingsley nudges and talks the tension out of my limbs as he guides me to move from standing to sitting in a properly aligned position and as I lie on a table to allow my muscles to let go and my spine to lengthen.
Rather than consciously move my body, I think about my shoulders dropping and my back lengthening.
He explains that I simply need to learn to allow my body to make less effort. Currently I hold my left shoulder higher than my right and crane my neck forward.
At first it feels odd to straighten. I feel unbalanced, but the mirror confirms that in fact I am now in balance.
A picture of Alexander on the wall shows him looking down at something in his hand. His eyes are downcast, head tilted on the top of the spine — at a point between the ears — but his posture is straight. This is what I’m aiming for when I use my phone.
As I leave, feeling lighter, I have the words: “Neck to be free, head going up, back to lengthen” on repeat in my head. Now I just have to keep them there.