An expert from Mediclinic Parkview Hospital gives an in-depth look on what is the real health impact of using smartphones everyday.
27 December 2020| Last updated on 26 January 2021
These days, most people wouldn't be able to imagine their life without smartphones anymore.
In the last two decades, smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc. have become a lifestyle must-have for everybody, from young children to the elderly.
Electronic devices have undoubtedly made our life so much easier than before; they provide immediate and easy access to information, they connect us to our loved ones wherever they are, they are indispensable working tools, and a lot more.
The Middle East has one of the highest percentages of smartphone penetration in the world. According to eMarketer, 79% of Saudi Arabia's entire population used a smartphone last year. In Kuwait, smartphone penetration rose from 49% to 86% in two years.
In the UAE, the corresponding figure was a whopping 91% (an uptick of nearly 20 percentage points in a single year); out of a 9.61 million population, 9.52 million people are active internet users and 8.80 million people are actively social through mobiles.
Although smartphones have simplified our lives in many aspects, the flipside of the coin is that they may represent a hazard to our health; this has prompted WHO and other organizations to promote research on the negative impacts of smartphones on health and especially into their long term, heavy use.
The current international consensus is that mobile phones' radiofrequency do not cause cancer or promote the accelerated growth of existing tumors, yet smartphones seem to be associated with a higher rate of several other health issues.
For example - headaches, decreased attention, sleep disorders and depression have been frequently found in individuals (in particular mostly among teenagers) that make an immoderate use of smartphones. Ophtalmologists have warned about an increasing rate of symptoms related to eye strain, such as “dry eye syndrome”.
Complaints of finger, hand and elbow pain have become frequent as a result of using electronic devices.
On social media, neologisms like “tech neck”, “text claw” and “cell phone elbow” are now frequently encountered. They all refer to the onset of symptoms triggered by overuse of smartphones and electronic devices . In reality, these painful conditions are not new and have been traditionally known with other names.
This article will try to focus on some of these symptoms and relate them to well-known medical conditions.
The term “tech neck” refers to a painful condition consequent to the hunchback slouch that many people frequently do while they’re using their electronic devices.
In order to look at their smartphone or another electronic device, they bend their neck forward.
When looking straight ahead, the head weight is between 5 and 6 kg. Bending the neck forward 15 degrees to look at the phone already doubles the head weight. If bending forward reaches 45 degrees or even more, further remarkable increase of the head weight will occur, placing remarkable strain on the spine as well on the muscles of the shoulder girdle.
Due to the small size of smartphones, many people also tend to hunch their shoulders in order to hold their smartphone in one hand and text with the other.
Incorrect ergonomics while working at the computer can also cause hunching over the keyboard.
In the long run, these non-ergonomic postures, especially when maintained for long hours, are responsible for triggering symptoms. The neck muscles, upper back, and shoulders must work harder now because they have to support a heavier head; this might eventually result in the onset of pain.
Stiff neck and neck soreness are usually the early symptoms. Afterwards, the discomfort may often spread down into the mid-back and shoulder blades and even along the arms. Headaches might be occasionally present as well.
The painful condition typically builds up over time. In the early stage, the pain might be on-off and experienced just after long hours working at the computer; rest quickly favors subsidence of soreness. After several days or weeks, pain may reoccur, become continuous and its severity progressively increases. Occasionally, numbness and tingling in the hand may also be experienced.
Although the initial symptoms may be just consistent with muscular issues, if the symptoms become persistent and particularly severe, the above described clinical manifestations might be suggestive of medical conditions related to nerve impingement.
In medical practice, the onset of neck stiffness and soreness associated with pain, numbness, and tingling spreading down along the arm may be consistent with cervical spine issues like bulging or herniated disks.
In predisposed individuals (especially women with long and slender necks, narrow shoulders and heavy breasts), the constant adoption of wrong postures with a forward head position may cause overstretching of the muscles behind the neck and shortening of the muscles in the front, eventually resulting in the asymmetrical setting of the rim shoulder.
This may occasionally trigger the onset of symptoms related to thoracic outlet syndrome, a peculiar medical condition due to compression on the so-called “neurovascular bundle” (formed by the nerves and the vessels for the arm) in the region of the body between the neck and armpit.
Texting thumb, smartphone thumb and text claw
Many people, especially young individuals, usually text while holding their phone with both hands and typing using both thumbs.
Texting or smartphone thumb, gamer's thumb, nintendinitis or Nintendo thumb are all frequently encountered neologisms referring to the onset of pain/tenderness at the wrist and spreading along the thumb.
Medically speaking, these recently coined terms are not related to a single condition but may be consistent with a few ones.
Texting thumb is often related to tendon inflammation. Basically, the tendon in the thumb becomes inflamed as it rubs repeatedly against the tunnel surrounding it. This condition is known as de Quervain’s tenosynovitis.
A clicking sensation when bending the thumb may also occur when the finger flexor tendon has a hard time sliding through a tunnel at the base of the finger in the front of the hand. This may trigger pain and, in more severe cases, catching or locking of the finger when trying to flex and extend the digit (trigger thumb).
Besides tendon inflammations, texting thumb may also be due to bone inflammation.
Arthritis of the carpometacarpal joint (the site where the thumb connects to the wrist) is another condition sometimes called texting thumb.
Text claw is also a neologism that does not correspond to an unambiguous medical term; it just describes a frequent painful condition, characterized by a variety of symptoms such as soreness and cramping in the thumb, fingers, wrist and forearm, numbness and tingling on some fingers or the whole hand.
These clinical manifestations may result from unspecific inflammation of tendons and muscles as consequence of their overuse due to texting or typing or may shape up to be definite medical conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome or cubital tunnel syndrome.
The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway located between the wrist and the palmar hand that is formed by small bones and a strong band of tissue called transverse carpal ligament; it contains tendons, which enable finger-bending, and the median nerve, which runs from the forearm to the palm and provides movement to the hand and feeling to the thumb, index, middle finger and part of the ring finger.
If the median nerve is compressed or squashed in any way, it causes the onset of numbness and tingling in the first 3 digits or the whole hand; pain is also frequent, it may affect only the hand or spread proximally along the arm even up to the shoulder.
In predisposed individuals, repetitive movements like those performed when scrolling, typing or swiping on the phone may trigger the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Smart phone elbow
The occurrence of elbow pain radiating along the forearm is another frequent possibility in individuals that overuse smartphones. Elbow pain and muscle soreness may also be frequently associated with the onset of numbness and tingling in the last two fingers of the hand.
Smartphone elbow is a recently coined umbrella term that encompasses more medical conditions, such as golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow and cubital tunnel syndrome.
Holding the smart phone for long hours requires prolonged contraction of the involved musculature, leading to fatigue and eventual injury/dysfunction of the common flexor tendon. The development of this condition is accelerated when gripping the smart phone harder than necessary, thereby increasing the contraction strength and thus the stress upon the musculature and its common tendon.
The inflammation of the common flexor tendon is known as “golfer’s elbow” or medial epicondylitis.
Prolonged holding of the phone may also cause inflammation of the forearm extensor muscles, resulting in tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis. As for the medial counterpart, gripping the phone harder than necessary worsens the severity of the condition.
When elbow pain and forearm muscle soreness is associated with onset of numbness and tingling along the little and ring fingers, the cause of the symptoms might be cubital tunnel syndrome.
This medical condition results from compression on the ulnar nerve along its course in the elbow, in a passageway called cubital tunnel.
Symptoms due to cubital tunnel syndrome are frequently seen in predisposed individuals that also tend to spend long hours with their elbows flexed (e.g. while sleeping) or leaned on hard surfaces.
As described in the article, many of the neologisms used on social media to define painful conditions consequent to the overuse of electronic gadgets are just umbrella terms that group several medical conditions with similar clinical manifestations.
Although nowadays googling symptoms have become very common, consulting an expert physician should always be preferred. It is certainly true that many cases of the here described painful syndromes may spontaneously resolve with rest, yet in predisposed individuals, some symptoms might be the initial sign of medical conditions that should be promptly diagnosed and treated.
Seeking medical advice is unquestionably the best way to protect your health!
Authored by Dr. Debora Garozzo
Dr. Debora Garozzo
Mediclinic Parkview Hospital