Cell Phone Ergonomics: How to Avoid the “Smart Phone Slump”

Here are some actionable tips you can put into practice right now to combat neck and shoulder pain.

If you are one out of the every five people on this planet who owns a smart phone, now is the time to start thinking twice about looking down at your phone to check email or Facebook.

By the time you are done reading this article (and, please, no slouching while reading) you will be clued in on some actionable tips you can put into practice right now to combat “the smart phone slump,” and eliminate or greatly reduce the pain and problems that come along with it.

What the Research Says

In a study conducted by Dr. Kenneth K. Hansraj, Chief of Spine Surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, it was found that as the human head tilts forward the forces seen by the neck surge. When we hold our head in a healthy, neutral position, the forces to the cervical spine are about 10-12 pounds. But look what happens when we tilt our head forward:

This graph from the study described above shows the effects of the tilt that accompanies cell phone use.

Repetitive increases in stress of this nature may lead to all sorts of neck problems, including early wear and tear, degeneration, and possibly the need for surgery.

A Case Study

You may look at the photo below and think nothing of it, because this is what we typically see when we are out and about, and it is even the stance we are accustomed to taking when using our own smart phones and devices.

Looks pretty normal, right?

But let’s take a closer look, and see what Dr. Hansraj was referring to in his research.

Here’s what is actually happening.

With the help of a plumb line and angle lines, we can see this man’s head is tilted at approximately 45 degrees. That means our coffee shop guy has gone from putting the normal 10-12 pounds of weight on his neck to a massive 49 pounds!

Every day, people like you and I spend an average of two to four hours with our heads tilted over reading and texting on our smart phones and devices. Cumulatively this amounts 700 to 1,400 hours per year of excess stress placed on the cervical spine. To make matters even worse, high school students are spending an extra 5,000 hours bent over reading, texting, and typing on their devices. Imagine the impact that is having on our necks and backs!

What You Can Do to Avoid the Slump

The following are my simple and easy tips for eliminating the smart phone slump and avoiding these negative side effects:

1. Hold Your Phone at Eye Level

Hold your phone at eye level when typing on your phone. This may look funny, but it will force you to hold your head, neck, and shoulders in a better position.

My favorite thing about holding the phone at eye level is that it has a built-in time restricting feature, and not to mention a slight embarrassment factor. As in: you will notice when you hold your phone at eye level your shoulder muscles tire quickly, and it just looks funny.

This will force you to only use your phone for short periods of time, whereas when you sit and comfortably look down at your phone, you may be able to use your phone for long periods without experiencing any form of discomfort (physical or social).

Hold your phone at eye level to avoid excessive tilting.

2. Lie on the Floor

If you are at home or in a setting where you feel comfortable being on the floor, then lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Hold your phone over your face to text and surf the Internet. This position will put your head in the same plane as your shoulders, and will allow the muscles of your neck and upper back to relax.

Just like tip number one, your shoulder muscles will quickly begin to fatigue in this position – which is a good thing! This will heighten your awareness of the amount of time you are spending using your phone.

Or lie on your back to help the neck and upper spine relax.

3. Voice to Text

If your phone has a voice transcription feature, learn how to use it and talk your text messages, social media posts, and emails. This may take a little time to get accustomed to, but your neck, shoulders, and back will thank you.

4. Remove the Distractions From Your Phone

The most drastic, highly recommended, and by far most effective of all of my tips: remove social media, email, and games from your phone. I know this might sound crazy, but think about it – there was a time in your life when you didn’t have social media, much less even a portable cell phone.

Instead, try scheduling designated time to handle your emails and social media from your computer where you can set up your ergonomics to support good body positioning as you type.

It’s Worth the Change

Avoiding the cell phone slump is simple and anyone can do it. It just requires a little self-discipline and awareness. But it’s worth doing for the difference it will make in your neck, back, and the rest of your body, too!

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1. Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, “Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head,” Surgical Technology International XXV (2014).

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