They give us directions, entertainment and immediate Internet access, but could our tablets and smartphones also be giving us back pain? Yes, says a recent study out of Harvard. Researchers found the very thing that makes us love our mobile devices—their mobility—can also promote poor postures that strain the upper back, neck and shoulders.
The study, highlighted in the Harvard Health Letter last month, also determined that simply limiting how long you use your device per sitting and investing in a quality, adjustable tablet stand can mean the difference between a happy back and a weary one.
This trend is a significant among Americans. Tablet ownership rates among online U.S. consumers reached 31 percent in September, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The group estimates 45 percent of online consumers will purchase a tablet within the next two years, many of them on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Back pain already affects up to 8 in 10 Americans, according to some estimates.
The relationship between mobile technology and the prevalence of shoulder, neck and back pain intrigued Jack Dennerlein, an adjunct professor of ergonomics and safety at the Harvard School of Public Health and a professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at Boston’s Northeastern University.
“The tablets are wonderful technology in that they’re very mobile, they allow people to use them anywhere,” Dennerlein said. “The issue is that that also provides opportunities for them to be used in ways that put extra strain on the neck and upper back.”
Dennerlein and a group of colleagues set out to examine the amounts and types of strain improper mobile device use can cause. They asked 15 tablet users to perform various tasks like watching a movie, answering emails or playing a game on an Apple iPad or a Motorola Xoom. The subjects wore motion analysis sensors to record their movements.
“What surprised us the most was how much the head and neck is flexed when (the tablet) is on your lap,” he said. “The second thing is how much the case matters.”
In fact, Dennerlein said the case that accompanies a tablet can be key to preventing back, neck and shoulder pain. Most cases let users set their tablets upright on a flat surface. Dennerlein found that the ideal case will allow users to stand their tablets at a 45-degree angle.
Dennerlein said the weight of leaning your head forward can cause pressure and eventual soreness and pain at the back of the neck, in the shoulder muscles and throughout the upper back.
“You’re gonna get soreness, especially if you’re older, and it can accumulate over time,” said Dennerlein, who himself limits his bedtime iPad reading to about 10 minutes.
His biggest tip for preventing mobile device-related back pain was simple: Get mobile.
“Don’t get stuck in one posture using your tablet – keep moving!” he said.
4 Tips for Preventing Mobile Device-Related Back Pain
- Invest in a good tablet case/stand: Much of the strain related to mobile devices comes from holding your head down to view them. Invest instead in a case/stand that lets you place your device on a flat surface. One with adjustable angles is the best.
- Support your back: If you’re going to use your device in your lap, make sure your back has good support. On a couch, in a bed or on any other soft surface, try pillows to give yourself support and prevent upper back pain.
- Hold the phone higher: Holding your smartphone at an angle that minimizes how much you bend your neck also can help in cutting neck strain.
- Take breaks: Use your device in 10 to 15 minute increments. Avoid long activities like movie watching on these devices. Holding an awkward position for too long contributes to upper back pain.