Is the Smartphone Ruining Our Spines?

Aug. 24, 2017


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 annual meeting of the North American Spine Society (NASS). There, Dr. Johnson has lectured on this very subject.

In his talk,  Mechanical Pain and Postural Syndromes: The iPhone Generation, he starts out 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 seeking care for back and musculoskeletal pain at earlier ages than the previous generation.

According to one survey, young adults, ages 18 to 24, spend more than eight hours a day, on average, in front of a screen (not including TV). And young people, by their own admission, slouch more during this screen time–older adults apparently are 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.”

Dr. Johnson says posture is both a problem of habit and a problem of muscular imbalances around the neck and back. He recommends patients practice the basics of good posture, as well as stretch and strengthen muscles around the neck and back.

Dr. Johnson recommends several beneficial exercises to his patients 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 reviews the basics of good posture and workstation tips with his patients. 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.

In 2014, Dr. Johnson  was appointed the first allied health (non-physician) member to sit on the NASS membership committee. As a well known spine expert,  Dr. Johnson has also been invited to speak at the NASS annual meeting for many years.

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

Originally published on Dec 31, 2014
Updated Aug 23, 2017

Call us