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By Adam Shelverton
Assistant Rehabilitation Manager

Much of modern life today requires the use of a smartphone, tablet or app. Our thumbs and fingers are swiping and scrolling more then ever and we spend more and more time glancing down into our palms and laps at mobile devices. These modern devices and the positions, movements and postures we adopt to use them has seen an increase in certain types of injuries.

 

How technology might affect your physical health

Repetitive strain injuries to thumbs, fingers, hands, wrists and elbows – Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a general term used to describe pain felt in nerves, muscles and tendons caused by repetitive movement and overuse. Symptoms of RSI can range from mild to severe, often develop gradually and can include pain, aching ,stiffness, tingling, numbness, weakness and cramp.  Cases of RSI have increased significantly as a result of prolonged  repetitive actions. RSIs can be challenging to recover from as for a lot of people the continued use of a mouse, phone or keyboard cannot be easily avoided. In the future we may see a greater incidence of osteoarthritis of the thumb, wrist and finger joints and joint replacement may become more common place.

Neck injuries - Affectionately called “text neck” by some clinicians, this relates to the musculo-skeletal injury caused by holding your head/neck in a flexed position often for an extended period of time to use your device. Research has shown these positions can place up to 60 pounds of additional pressure on your neck and increase the incidence of muscular, ligamentous and even cervical disc injury.

It is likely that technology will eventually progress to the point where we no longer have to use our limbs to operate devices but until such a  time we will have to manage the associated risks.

Here are a few suggestions as to what employers and employees can do to reduce the risk of suffering one of these injuries. 

  1. Try to alternate between using your thumbs and other fingers to type on your device. Whenever possible, use your fingers to type instead of your thumbs.
  2. Where possible place your phone/device down on a hard surface if you're texting, or hold the phone in one hand and text with the other, instead of using only one hand. Using one hand to hold and type increases the strain on your wrists and fingers considerably.
  3. If you have to use your thumbs to type try to use the pad of your thumb, as opposed to the tip of the thumb, as this can create an awkward bent position which can lead to potential injury.
  4. Keep your wrists relaxed and as straight as possible. Minimize the strain on your wrists, fingers and thumbs by using a neutral grip when holding your device.
  5. Try to maintain the phone/device at your chest, chin or eye level to minimize the bend in your neck and to maintain optimal spinal posture. If your phone is below eye level, look down with your eyes rather than your neck. Also try to avoid adopting theses positions for an extended period of time.
  6. Avoid using the phone to one side of the body with the neck rotated or cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder.
  7. Purchase a protective case for your device. This has two benefits: it can make the device easier to hold from an ergonomic perspective and, the perception that the device is protected means users tend to hold it with less grip strength thereby reducing the stress on upper limbs. 
  8. Use attachments that improve ergonomics e.g. ear phones when on a call for long periods, and microphone and auxiliary cords to avoid awkward postures. When possible use a portable keyboard attachment for mobile devices.
  9. If possible limit your device use to 20-minute sessions. Take a short device-free break in between these sessions. Employers should encourage these breaks from a health and wellbeing perspective.


Summary

Homo sapiens have evolved slowly over time but technology can evolve in months and sometimes days. Put simply, we have not evolved quickly enough to cope with the demands that  modern life and  technology place on our bodies.   It’s funny to think that perhaps our primitive ancestors, who had greater hand and finger dexterity as a result of their hunter/gathering might have been better equipped to deal with modern devices than us.