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Updated 24 August 2018

Here's how your phone's affecting your health

We tap, we text, we scroll, we snap – most of us couldn’t live without our smartphones. But all that screen time could be taking a toll on our health

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We tap, we text, we scroll, we snap – most of us couldn’t live without our smartphones.

But all that screen time could be taking a toll on our health.

Smartphones thumb and text claw – they might not be official medical conditions, but physiotherapists and doctors are seeing more and more of these aches and pains since our phones have become such a huge part of our daily lives.

The amount of time we spend on our smartphones is bound to have an effect on our bodies. Here’s a roundup of the most common complaints and what you can do to minimise the strain.

Digital eye strain

Nowadays computer vision syndrome – dry, achy, itchy eyes – isn’t affecting only people who work on a computer all day long. Screens have become such a huge part of our lives that chances are you’re spending a few hours daily looking at one.

Thankfully there’s no evidence that marathon screen sessions affect long-term vision or eye health, says Dr Joshua Dunaief, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Instead it’s the short-term symptoms – headaches, eye ache and dry eyes – that are the problem. Research indicates that many people suffer physical discomfort after as little as two hours spent staring at a digital device. And according to Optometry Times, a staggering 28% of the world’s population spend 10 or more hours in front of some sort of digital screen.

If you work on a computer you’re likely to often spend quite a few consecutive hours staring at a screen (often alternating between your phone and computer screens) and risk blurred vision, headaches, dry eyes from blinking less and general eye strain.

“This is particularly the case if you have any untreated vision problems in the first place,” Johannesburg optometrist Nicole Levy says.

Handy Tips

Play around with the contrast settings on your screens to see what’s most comfortable for you, optometrist Nicole Levy says. If you work at a computer screen all day, use lubricant drops (preferably preservative free) to help prevent dry eyes.

Adjust the brightness of your phone screen, especially at night. The blue light emitted from smartphones isn’t only linked to insomnia but can also be detrimental to our eyesight, says professor of ophthalmology Dr Joshua Dunaief.

“There are animal studies showing blue light can damage the retina when light is intense,” he explains. S Don’t stare at any screen for longer than 20 minutes. “I remind my patients who work on a computer all day to look away every 15 to 20 minutes and to try to remember to blink every time they hit the space bar or press enter,” Levy says.

Position your screen about 40cm from your face, says Mark Rosenfield, a researcher at State University of New York College of Optometry. This applies to computers, tablets and smartphones. “If you find it hard to read at that distance, increase the size of your screen’s text,” he adds.

The smartphone effect 

A recent UK study found 73% of people in their twenties reported suffering from digital eye strain

Thumb and hand 

If you’ve spent a lot of time on your phone you’ve probably felt that tell-tale ache in your fingers or wrist caused by holding your hand in the same position for too long and repeating the same fine-motor movements.

There’s no specific diagnosis that arises from people using technological devices, says US based orthopaedic surgeon Dr Aaron Daluiski. But any repetitive fine-motor activity can lead to pain in the tendons or muscles, and repetitive motions of the hands or fingers can exacerbate tendinitis, an inflammation of the tendons.

Smartphone thumb, as it’s called, is due to inflammation in the tendons that bend and flex the thumb and is common because of the often-awkward movements this digit has to make on a small screen clutched in the same hand.

But don’t be surprised if you feel the discomfort elsewhere, even though it’s your thumb doing most of the work – repetitive finger and hand motions can also lead to pain in the wrist and even the forearm as they’re all connected.

Handy Tips

Download a voice dictation app or send voice messages so you don’t have to type as much. S If you feel pain in your fingers, hand, and wrist or forearm while using your phone, take a break. It’ll be pretty obvious if it’s excessive smartphone use that’s causing the problem.

Do a few simple stretches every time you use your phone for a long time. Stretch your hand back by pulling your fingers gently towards your upper arm and holding for a few seconds. Then flex your hand in the other direction by turning your wrist down and pulling your fingers gently towards the underside of your arm.

Change the way you use your phone every now and then. For example, use your index finger instead of your thumb to tap the screen. S If you have ongoing pain that lasts for longer than a week, see your doctor as it might have progressed further than a sporadic niggly pain to tendinitis.

Neck pain and headaches 

These days’ smartphones also add to the number of neck complaints. A recent study done by New York spine surgeon Dr Kenneth Hansraj found that you put almost 30kg of pressure on your neck when you tilt your head down 60° to stare at your phone screen.

Cape Town chiropractor Dr Jason Liepner says about 70% of his cases are related to bad posture that’s mostly due to cell phone and computer use.

 “I also see more smartphone-obsessed young adults and children with neck issues, which shouldn’t be so prevalent in their demographic.”

He adds that while stress is a major source of tension headaches, it’s not the only cause.

“When you have your head tilted forward, your muscles prevent your head falling completely towards your chest, and if you’re asking these muscles to work overtime to support your head and resist gravity they become fatigued. This can cause muscle spasm, leading to headaches and neck pain.

Handy Tips

When using your phone, hold it up so you don’t have to drop your head forwards. Chiropractor Dr Jason Liepner suggests resting your elbows on a desk or table while holding your phone so it’s positioned in line with your eyes

It can clog up pores too 

Our phones are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

“Talking on our cell phone transfers heat and moisture into the screen surface, making it the perfect environment for bacteria to breed,” Cape Town dermatologist Dr Nomphelo Gantsho explains.

“We also store our phones in dark, warm places such as our handbags or pockets, helping bacteria to populate.” She adds that pressing our phones to our skin while we talk stimulates the oil glands, causing them to produce more oil, which can then clog up pores. 

She suggests regularly wiping your phone with a microfiber cloth, a cotton bud dipped in rubbing alcohol, or a special phone-sanitising wipe. You should also hold your phone slightly away from your face or at least not right up against your skin when you take a call, or opt to go hands free.

Try these tips:

Download a voice dictation app or send voice messages so you don’t have to type as much. If you feel pain in your fingers, hand, wrist or forearm while using your phone, take a break.

It’ll be pretty obvious if it’s excessive smartphone use that’s causing the problem. Do a few simple stretches every time you use your phone for a long time. Stretch your hand back by pulling your fingers gently towards your upper arm and holding for a few seconds.

Then flex your hand in the other direction by turning your wrist down and pulling your fingers gently towards the underside of your arm.

Change the way you use your phone every now and then. For example, use your index finger instead of your thumb to tap the screen. S If you have ongoing pain that lasts for longer than a week, see your doctor as it might have progressed further than a sporadic niggly pain to tendinitis.

 
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