Browsing our way to back pain

How the constant use of technology mixed with poor posture is slowly transforming us back to our Neanderthal ancestors

BY TYSON LAUTENSCHLAGER

Many people who sit in front of a computer desk all day at the office will find themselves having to get up and stretch during the day to minimize back pain, or give their eyes a break from the bright, exhausting computer screen. It may feel like it decreases productivity and puts a wrinkle in an already overwhelming workload, but it becomes necessary to get through the day.

Getting massages are a common form of relief for millennials dealing with back and neck pain from excessive technology use. Photo Credit: Rachel Dosant

To many, this seems like a minor problem, but for people like 29-year-old Vanessa Lio of Vaughan, daily back pain and eye strain is a nuisance when she’s balancing her work and personal life.

Lio works as an archival assistant for the Dufferin County Museum. She spends the bulk of her work day in front of a computer.

“Oh God, balanced together [using my phone and computer], I’d say like 11-12 hours [spent online],” she says.

Lio has been dealing with several types of technology-related pain for her entire adult life but says the pain is particularly bad in one spot.

“My back for sure because that has to do with sitting on the chair all day and my posture. I sometimes will get arthritic pain in my wrist from typing. That’s probably the worst pain for sure, the back,” she says.

A 2014 study called Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head by Dr. Kenneth K. Hansraj, a New York spinal surgeon, says that the constant uses of cell phones and other devices are doing damage to the average person’s posture. The study cites that just tilting the head 60 degrees to look down at a cell phone can cause 60 pounds of tension on the head and neck.

Dr. Yuri Charko Photo Credit: Tyson Lautenschlager

 Dr. Yuri Charko, a chiropractor with Toronto-based physiotherapy office Pivot Sport Medicine, sits upright in his chair whenever online, which helps with his near perfect posture. He says he is noticing more and more millennials walk into his office complaining of back and neck pain.

“It’s definitely become more prevalent I’d say in the past five years for a multitude of reasons,” Charko says. “Obviously, technology has become really big in the office space. Spending a lot of time in front of a computer to do reports, or what not. We also are seeing it a lot more in younger individuals.

“Nowadays, we see 10-year-old’s and 12-year-old’s with iPhone 7’s, playing a lot of games. They’re hunched over, and their faces are glued. Even if it’s not a cell phone, I see it with younger individuals because parents are trying to pacify their children.”

One of the more jarring things Charko has noticed over the years is younger patients developing upper cross syndrome, a condition that tightens up the shoulder blades, which causes tension on the body.

“If you’ve ever seen those pictures where you see the evolution of man, and you go from the Neanderthal to standing up, it’s almost like we’re going in reverse,” he says. “As time goes on, we start going back into that Neanderthal position where the shoulders roll forward, the chin goes forward and the arch of the back increases … We see the peck region gets super tight, so everything comes forward.”

While Hansraj’s suggestion for people to ease the tension on their neck is to just look at their phone with a neutral posture rather than tilting their head down and being hunched over. Charko’s suggestion is admittedly tougher to achieve for a technology driven and addicted society.

“Turn off the notifications. Don’t check Facebook or Twitter every time you see that little blue LED light. Check it every once in a while, once an hour. That gives you the satisfaction of knowing what your friends are doing, or what Donald Trump is doing. The idea is at least you’re not checking it every two minutes.”

Head, neck and back pain aren’t the only sources of damage being done to the body by technology. Eye strain is common among people who can’t quite take their eyes off their screens. It isn’t something that only affects vision, though. It’s also known to cause headaches, called cervicalgenic headaches, which are generated by issues in the neck, according to Charko.

“There’s really tiny muscles in the back of the skull called suboccipital muscles and they get really tight in a static position for too long,” says Charko. “They pull on the back of the head, and that ends up causing referral pain, or a headache that starts at the back of the neck and moves to the temporal region.”

Dr. Christine Lay, a Toronto-based neurologist and headache specialist with the Women’s College Hospital, says headaches are becoming a big issue for college-age students as they spend too much time on the computer. Lay says most of the headaches younger people have related to technology are actually migraines.

“I think in terms of headaches, particularly migraines, but headaches in general, patients are vulnerable to technology use. The problem comes in a number of different ways, and this is what we look at in young adults specifically,” Lay says.

As the associate professor of neurology at the University of Toronto, Lay has found increased risk of migraine due to technology use is more common in younger people rather than people reaching their 40s.

“The brain is still developing until about age 30,” she says. “The fully developed adult brain is less vulnerable to some of these changes and those are chemical changes. An adult, however, is still vulnerable if they’re on their iPad at night for an hour before they go to bed because it will impact their ability to get a good quality sleep. That backlight from the cell phone could trigger headaches in them, but it seems to be more common in young people because they’re the people who do it more.”

Another issue Lay has noticed more in the last five to 10 years is millennials developing insomnia, which is in part due to increased screen time.

“What we’ve found is that using a cell phone or an iPad for instance after ‘the sun’s gone down,’ and it’s getting closer to bedtime, leads to significant disruption in sleep,” she says. “Patients end up with insomnia and difficulty falling asleep. They also end up with short sleep duration. Instead of getting in seven hours, they might toss and turn a bit and only get six or five hours of sleep. They also get fragmented sleep where they spend more time in light stage sleep rather than deep quality, sort of rejuvenated sleep. They end up feeling very tired, and all that disruption in sleep is one thing that leads to headache in people that use [too much technology].”

Young people who spend a lot of time in front of the computer or on their phone are exceeding the recommended amount of screen time, which can sometimes be unpreventable.

“The ‘reasonable’ amount of screen time for healthy brain is about an hour per day,” Lay says. “What we’re trying to say is this is the world of technology we live in. You might need to be on your desktop at work for six hours, you might be in class for five hours a day using your laptop. You can’t get around that. It’s the world we live in. Outside of that, limit your screen time to an hour for pleasure or fun stuff.”

Dr. Carole Wilkinson, a Kitchener optometrist who practises in Elmira, Ont., has seen a combination of younger and older patients in her 28-year career. She’s noticed in her younger patients the increased risk in vision damage due to more exposure to blue light. Blue light, which can be seen everywhere from sunlight to man-made indoor sources such as computer screens, is a type of high-energy visible light that has numerous health impacts from retinal injury to macular degeneration.

“They’re still studying it,” Wilkinson says. “It’s a fairly new phenomenon but there are a lot of people using computers nowadays. Having said that, we need to be a little bit more concerned, especially with the younger generation.”

Macular degeneration is a vision disease that Wilkinson is particularly worried about with younger people. It’s a common eye problem in patients 50 and older, but it’s starting to creep into the discussion with millennials as it damages things in the retina’s path and computer usage has been associated to it as a contributing factor.

Another one of Dr. Wilkinson’s primary concerns is with what computer usage might be doing to people with near-sighted vision loss, a condition that makes it difficult to see objects that are closer up.

“As far as whether computer use would cause you to become more near-sighted than you otherwise would be, it kind of appears that way, but there is still some research to be done in that regard,” she says.

In terms of how to stop vision damage, Wilkinson says the first step to correcting starts with getting yearly eye exams.

“To be aware of it is number one,” she says. “People need to understand that they probably are spending more time on these devices than they realize.”

A long day in front of the computer can be made even tougher at night for people like Lio who find themselves tired and unable to disconnect after spending the entire day online.

“I’ll feel completely exhausted at the end of the day, and I’m not doing intense labour or anything,” she says. “Staring at a screen all day just wears you out. Extreme exhaustion.”

 

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