How handheld devices can cause a pain in the neck

Here are 7 things you can do to avoid the aches and pains of texting.

We rely on our smartphones for almost everything-work, shopping, entertainment-but we need to power down our use to avoid "text neck" and other aches and pains, says a University of Alberta expert.

"We use our handheld devices far too much, and how we are using them often puts us in postures that put increased stress on our neck, upper back and arms," said Judy Chepeha, a professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

The simple act of looking down at your phone or texting a message doesn't require a lot of exertion, so it may not seem harmful. But think again.

"We are working against body mechanics that are setting us up for pain and potential injury," said Chepeha, who teaches about prevention and treatment of "text neck" and other repetitive strain injuries that occur with overusing handheld devices.

The neck, arms and thumbs tend to take the brunt of sloppy posture when we hunch over our devices. And research, said Chepeha, is starting to reveal the toll it takes.

One Canadian study, for instance, shows that the more we bend our necks to look at our phone screens, the heavier the strain. The human head weighs 10 to 12 pounds in its normal position, but tipping your chin by a scant 15 degrees to peer at a screen increases the head's weight on the neck to 27 pounds. At 45 degrees, an angle commonly used, that weight has increased to a whopping 49 pounds.

"This amount of force for long periods of time puts an incredible load on the neck-much more than it's designed to sustain."

Thumb pain, also a common ailment, comes from overuse in texting.

"Most people hold their cellphone in one hand and use one thumb, resulting in a high keystroke count coming from that thumb. But those joints and muscles aren't designed for that type of position and amount of usage," Chepeha explained.

The arms also have to work extra hard if they aren't supported while we hold our phones, putting unnecessary strain on the upper back and shoulders, she noted.

Though it's almost impossible to avoid using handheld devices, there are ways to dial back the chances of tech-related aches and pains.

Heads-up when using handheld devices. If possible, keep your head and neck in a more neutral or upright position when using your devices.

Prop up your device. To avoid strain on the neck and shoulder muscles, support your arms and elbows when using your phone by propping them on an armrest or table when sitting or keeping them no higher than countertop level when standing.

Avoid looking at your device for more than 30 minutes at a time. Try taking a break by going from sitting to standing. "Even a two- to five-minute change of position is enough for your body to realign."

Use your desktop computer. "Think about other ways to text or email. If you can use your desktop for better positioning for part of the day, do that. Try not to do everything on your phone."

Practise good posture. "When we have ideal posture, we're using the right muscles to be in that position. When we're not, those muscles get weak and lazy." Elongate your posture by keeping your head up, shoulder blades back, chin tucked in slightly, and hold that position for 30 seconds at at time. Do this throughout the day.

Stretch your neck. To avoid stiffness that comes with text neck, stretch the large muscles on either side of the neck by gently tipping your head from side to side and holding for 30 seconds.

Give your sore thumb a break. Use both thumbs or the index finger to type. Help ease a sore, stiff thumb by stretching it across the palm or moving it in circles.

Get professional help if you need it. If you're having trouble managing your aches and pains, consider seeing a doctor or physical therapist.