4 Ways Technology Is Injuring Your Body
Is “selfie elbow” the new “tennis elbow”? What you need to know about this injury, and other tech-related aches and pains.
You probably already know that your cell phone can be a pain in the neck. (And back. And shoulder.) It’s something that both researchers and doctors alike have been noticing for the past five years or so. But fast forward to today: Are our texting/Snapchatting/selfie-taking habits getting any healthier?
Probably not, says Jocelyn Szeto, MD, a primary care sports medicine physician with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute at Texas Medical Center. In fact, if Hoda Kotb’s “selfie elbow” is any indication of our progress, it seems like we’re finding totally new ways to injure ourselves.
It’s hard to know exactly how many people suffer from tech-related aches—“the incidence rate is still underreported,” says Dr. Szeto—but she sees plenty of people who are bothered by tight tendons and overuse injuries.
The culprit, she says, is pretty much one thing: repetition, repetition, repetition. Problem is, we not only text, type, and selfie often, we also do so without really noticing it, she says. Time to change that. Here are four tech-related injuries to be aware of, and ways to ward them off.
Selfies are all about finding the best angle for your face, not your joints: With our arms stuck out in front of us and our elbows held at an awkward angle—sometimes for 10 to 15 seconds at a time—"it's not a very ergonomic position,” says Dr. Szeto.
The problem: Taking tons of selfies can strain one of the forearm muscles that helps stabilize your arm. And when you use that muscle too often, tiny microtears form around the part of it that connects to the elbow joint, causing inflammation. “It’s the same muscles that are affected in ‘tennis elbow,’” she says.
The fix: Scale back on the selfies, which should give your muscles a much-needed break. Alternating your camera hand can help, too. (Or you can always ask a friend to take the picture for you.)
Whether you’re a stickler about cleaning out your inbox, still playing Candy Crush, or are just really active on Tinder, you can trigger an overuse injury by repetitively swiping your thumb.
The problem: Scrolling, swiping, typing—your thumb is probably doing way more work than you give it credit for. And repeatedly moving your thumb in the same manner can cause inflammation in the tendons in your thumbs. (Dr. Szeto notes that this can also occur in the tendons of a person’s forefinger, which is often used for typing on a tablet or phone.)
The fix: Taking a break every few minutes or so to rest your fingers and thumb can help prevent overuse. Try switching up your typing fingers too.
Any hand-held mobile device can cause posture problems, but it’s hard to hold a tablet in an ergonomically friendly way, says Szeto. Most people hold their tablets too low—i.e., resting on their laps or propped against their thighs.
The problem: When you look down at your tablet screen, you’re also transferring more pressure to your upper spine; when that happens, your neck muscles have to work overtime to support your head, upping the odds that you’ll strain those muscles.
The fix: If you’re watching a video clip, prop up your tablet on a table at eye level; if you’re typing, try to use the device in the same way you’d use a desktop computer (as much as possible anyway). For example, use a keyboard and place the screen on your desk at eye level. And take a break every few minutes, says Dr. Szeto.
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The empty space about the fireplace mantle is an aesthetically-pleasing spot for a flatscreen. But it means you’re constantly craning your neck to watch your favorite shows.
The problem: When you look up at a TV, your neck is “hyperextended”— medical speak for “bent in an awkward position.” And since that puts extra stress on your neck muscles, you could wind up with a sore neck. (More incentive to move the TV to a more ergonomically-ideal place: Americans spend almost three hours a day in front of the tube, according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor.)
The fix: You should always put the TV at eye level, says Dr. Szeto, so you're looking straight ahead. This way, your neck and spine will be in the “neutral position”—i.e., you won’t have to lift or twist it to see the screen. Think of it like this: “No one fights to sit in the front row when they go to the movies,” Dr. Szeto points out. Besides, whose family room actually looks HGTV-ready in real life?