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Cellphones blamed for rise in 'text neck' injuries among teenagers

Teenagers are suffering injuries once reserved for long-time office workers, and the ever-present cellphone has been fingered as the main culprit.

Osteopaths and physiotherapists have reported an increase in posture-related back and neck injuries across the board in New Zealand, but particularly among high school students.

They are blaming the ubiquitous access to smartphones, tablets and laptops, which leave teens hunched for hours on their beds or couches, putting enormous strain on the body.

"As soon as they walk in the door, you can see it. They are all slouchers," Wellington physiotherapist Catherine Millar said.

So-called "text neck" gained prominence globally in 2013, with several studies suggesting a correlation between neck, shoulder and lower back pain and mobile technology use.

One American study in 2014, by Kenneth Hansraj, found that tilting the head while looking down on your phone could drastically increase the pressure on your neck. The typical head weighs about 5kg, but tilting it just 60 degrees downwards could increase the load on the neck to 27kg, the study said.

Some research has even suggested the impact of small screens on our posture could affect our moods, making us more submissive and depressed.

Osteopaths in New Zealand said children as young as 13 were now complaining about pain, from the thumbs through to the jaw, arising from poor posture.

Josh Smith, at Johnsonville Physiotherapy Centre, said with many teenagers now having a phone, a laptop, and sometimes a tablet too, sedentary hunched postures that were previously restricted to school or work were now increasingly common at home.

"Kids have slouched forever, but when you're not getting up as often to do other stuff, it has an impact.

"Compared with a desktop computer or television, mobile devices put even more strain on the neck, as people often tilted their heads down to look at the screen.

Exactly what the long-term impact would be was hard to know, as such problems had previously been uncommon at young ages, he said.

"We are only really seeing the first phase, but there will likely be more long-term effects down the track."Rob Cashman, of Cashman Physiotherapy in Wellington, said the size of phones, which can fit into one hand and be operated with one digit, also had an impact.

"Using one hand, with one thumb – we are not designed to do that for long periods of time.

"The difficult thing is extracting the phone from their palm. It's like they're glued into their hands.

"ACC does not keep precise figures for chronic cellphone use injuries. Last year there were 35 injury claims involving "texting", but they mostly related to tripping or walking into things while distracted.

Physiotherapy NZ president Ian d'Young said getting accurate figures was difficult, but anecdotally many physios ans osteos were seeing an increase in referrals related to chronic cellphone use, particularly from younger people.

Tips from experts:

* Try holding your phone up at face level, rather than tilting your head to read. This will lessen the load on you neck and limit the time you stare at the screen when you have to drop your sore arm.

* Staying in one position for too long can strain your muscles, but some positions are worse than others. Studying on your bed or in front of the television, hunched over your device, is worse than sitting at a desk with your back supported.

* Screen time is eating into time you could be outside being active, playing sport or even just going for a walk. Try substituting moving your body for sedentary time staring at Facebook. You don't need to know constantly what your friends are doing.

* Even if you absolutely must be hunched and staring at a tiny screen for hours, take a few short breaks, stand up, look away, move your body.

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