Updated 01 July 2015

How your cellphone is breaking your neck

If you're one of the 36 million South Africans who make use of a mobile device, experts say you could develop 'text neck', which puts a lot of strain on your spine, potentially causing permament damage.


The angle at which you hold your head when using your cell phone could affect the cervical spine and result in a condition known as 'text neck'. This is according to a study by New York based back surgeon, Dr Kenneth Hansraj.

New set of health issues

The relatively new condition, which Hansraj calls an epidemic, is commonly caused when too much pressure is placed on the spine due to bad posture, especially those positions in which we find ourselves when we use our cell phones and tablets.

Fact: there are 37.2 million adults in South Africa and 97% of them have a cell phone. Although today’s digital age comes with many benefits and different ways of working, it also brings a new set of health issues, such as text neck. 

Today’s phone user spends two to four hours a day reading mails, sending texts and checking social media sites on their mobile devices. 

“Text neck is the result of the axial skeleton and associated structures (muscle, ligaments, nerves, fascia etc.) being exposed to extended period of abnormal and undue mechanical and positional stress caused by electronic devices used in ergonomically compromising positions," comments Jonathan Blake, a Johannesburg physiotherapist who has seen the condition far too many times at his Sandton practice.

"Personally I feel that the global term ‘text neck’ is too categorical – it implies that the postural problems caused by poor ergonomics are related to texting only. A more encompassing term is clearly needed so that these postural problems can be related to all forms of electronic communication – from screens, to keyboards, to notebooks, laptops and tablets etc."

Blake says that frequent text neck positions cause changes to the cervical spine, supporting ligaments, tendons, and musculature, and bony segments, commonly causing postural change. It has also been linked to headaches and neurological issues, depression and heart disease.

What’s worse is that if left untreated, the condition can result in permanent damage, including flattening of the spinal curve, onset of early arthritis, spinal degeneration, loss of lung volume capacity and even gastrointestinal problems. 

How we develop text neck

Hansraj explains that your spine holds the weight of your head, which, in a neutral position, weighs around 5 kilograms, but becomes heavier and puts more pressure on your spine as you tilt it forward.

In his study, he found that looking at your cell phone at a 60 degree angle (the angle at which you're likely to look at a mobile device from a seated or standing position) could put a head weight of up to 27kg on the spine (similar to carrying a small child on your shoulders).

He writes that it’s possible that a high school student may spend an extra 5,000 hours in poor posture, suggesting that we are heading for an epidemic of spinal problems in the not-too-distant future.

Here's what your head weighs at different angles:

Image: Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head by Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, Chief of Spine Surgery, New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine, New York, New York. Published in Surgical Technology International.

How to minimise your risk for text neck

Correct posture, regular breaks and a proper adjustment of equipment can help prevent disorders related to posture such as text neck, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, back and neck pain or vision care when using smartphones.

This video how adopting healthy habits when using your mobile device can help prevent text neck:

There are also apps that warn you if you’re holding the device wrongly. Check them out here: Android: Text Neck Indicator and Iphone: Watch Your Neck.

Follow these tips from Inspiration Office to alleviate and avoid text neck:

1. Be aware of your posture (there are wearable posture-tracking gadgets (such as LumoLift) to help workers identify when they are slouching). 
2. Limit your time spent in compromising positions, take a break and escape lengthy periods of being deskbound.
3. Instead of bending your neck, try looking down at your device with only your eyes.
4. Simple exercises such as standing in a doorway with your arms extended and pushing your chest forward to strengthen “the muscles of good posture” help alleviate pain.
5. Find an office chair that is built to support your back while sitting at your desk.

Cape Town based ergonomics expert, Angela Hendricks adds that the key to preventing any musculoskeletal problems is MOBILITY. "Extended periods in any awkward posture can result in neck pain but if you are regularly changing your position and giving your body a break, it gives the muscles time to recover." she says.

We also suggest that you make an appointment with a biokineticist who will teach you specific exercises that will strengthen your neck muscles and thereby help strengthen your neck and protect your vertebrae against degeneration from continuously looking down at your devices.

KnowYourBack also has some great tips on exercises to relieve neck pain and strengthen the muscles. 

Read: How to sit for a healthy back

These exercises recommended by the Chiropractic Centre for Optimum Health can help reduce text neck:

Read more:

The great guide to good posture
Texting while walking dangerous
Is your office chair affecting your health?

Sources:Giant Leap ; Surgical Technology International

Image: Shutterstock


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