You stare at them every day. Probably for more hours than you gaze at your own kids, partner or dog. We're talking screens, and "all that hunching to look at them can put serious strain on your body," says Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehab in New York City. See if your go-to position is a doctor's worst nightmareand how to fix it for fewer aches and pains.
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The text hunch
You know the position: Your head is down, phone at belly-button level and chin tucked in.
How it's hurting you: A study in the journal Surgical Technology International found that lowering your head to text puts the force of about 60 pounds (or four bowling balls!) on your upper spine.
"Plus, what we're doing isn't a nice, smooth head tilt," says Michelle Collie, a physical therapist and founder of Performance Physical Therapy in Rhode Island. Adds Dr. Hansraj, "Keeping your head down in this way can speed up your spine's degeneration."
Fix it now: Bring your cell phone to chest level or slightly higher and look down at the screen with just your eyes, advises Janice Moreside, PhD, a physiotherapist and assistant professor of kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
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The laptop slump
You know the position: You're sitting on the couch cross-legged with your laptop on, well, your lap, while you round your back and look down.
How it's hurting you: Not only are you straining your neck, you're also taxing your lower back. "Holding this position can cause the disks in your lower back to bulge backward, which could eventually lead to issues like a herniated disk," Moreside says. Besides, Dr. Hansraj points out, "if you can get into lotus position, you should probably know betteryou've taken yoga or other similar classes and realize what good posture feels like."
Fix it now: Move your laptop to a table. It will allow you to keep a neutral, comfortable spinal position. In
a pinch, place a pillow on your lap.
You know the position: You're sitting in bed with your knees bent, tablet on your thighs and your head thrust forward to look at the screen.
How it's hurting you: "There's really no comfortable and ergonomic way to look at a tablet," Collie says. Sticking your head out to better see the screen creates too much of a neck flex, Moreside says, which can lead to pain. A study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston found that people flexed their heads and necks more when using tablets than when using desktops or laptops.
Fix it now: Lie on your side, holding the tablet steady with one hand. Switch sides (and hands) every few minutes, Moreside suggests.
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The treadmill lean
You know the position: You're cruising on the treadmill, craning your neck to watch the TV.
How it's hurting you: Angling your neck up to look at a screen on the wall can throw off your balance. "That in turn can place higher demand on your joints, muscles, ligaments and bones, causing them to fatigue faster," says Jonathan R. Jezequel, director of physical therapy at NYSportsMed in New York City. "When our muscles are fatigued, they no longer reliably do what we think they are doing, so what we perceive as good form may in reality be poor form." And moving this way for a while can contribute to running injuries like ITB friction syndrome, where the iliotibial band rubs up against the side of the knee, or patellofemoral pain syndrome, which happens when the cartilage under the kneecap wears down. Not to mention, twisting to one side to watch a screen will stress muscles on the opposite side of the body, potentially leading to muscle strains in the back, Jezequel adds.
Fix it now: Love catching up on your favorite shows while you work out? Opt for a treadmill with a built-in screen if possible, which will keep your gaze straight ahead, Collie suggests. If your gym has only hanging TVs, choose a machine that's directly in line with the screen.
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The couch flop
You know the position: You're lying on your stomach on the couch, with your tablet on the floor and your head and neck hanging off the side.
How it's hurting you: You're using all your posterior neck muscles to keep your head up. "It's just not a normal position for your neck; gravity is trying to bend it more, and your neck is trying to fight it, so it can lead to a muscle or ligament strain," Collie says. Another likely side effect: back pain. A recent Australian study found that awkward body positions (not unlike this one) can significantly increase a person's risk of lower-back pain.
Fix it now: Lie completely on your back, holding your tablet in both hands above your head. Your arms can comfortably hold up the tablet for only a few minutes at a time, but that forces you to stop periodically, giving your muscles a much-needed break.
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The elbow bend
You know the position: You're on your belly, resting on your elbows with your smartphone in your hand.
How it's hurting you: Placing all that weight on your elbows and significantly bending them puts direct pressure on the ulnar nerve, located in the groove of the funny bone, which is no laughing matter. "This position can contribute to or exacerbate ulnar nerve compression at the elbow, which is called cubital tunnel syndrome," says Steven Z. Glickel, MD, clinical professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. What does that mean for you? You'll feel numbness and tingling in your ring and little fingers due to pressure on the nerveand down the line, you might have a decreased ability to pinch your thumb and little finger, as well as a weaker grip. Plus, if your wrist is flexed while you're holding your phone, that can also increase pressure on the median nerve at the wrist, potentially advancing carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Glickel adds.
Fix it now: With the phone in both hands, roll to your side, which will take pressure off your elbows and may also relieve your back.
You really can stand up to back pain. In a study in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, those who alternated between sitting and standing every 30 minutes when working reported fewer musculoskeletal symptoms in their lower back and 14 percent fewer in their ankles and feet, compared with when they sat all day. As a bonus, they also had more energy. Can't convince your boss to spring for one? Reap the same benefits by standing often at work, even taking calls on your feet; at home, move your laptop to the kitchen island so you can stand while you check email.