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Why Text is such a pain in the neck

In the 20th century we had housemaid’s knee and miner’s cough – or, if you were from a different social stratum, tennis elbow. Now it seems there is new work affliction for a new age, and it troubles all classes equally.

It is born of a peculiarly modern habit: walking along the street, head down, checking messages. It goes by the name of text neck.

Spinal surgeons say that they are increasingly concerned that smartphones are causing crisis in posture, especially in teenagers, the effects of which will be seen long after they have forgotten quite why it was so important to check WhatsApp.

“The neck is a wonderful thing, and it can have a full range of motion – but if you keep your head down for four hours a day, it is going to stress it,” said Kenneth Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine. He has published a paper analysing the forces felt by the neck through having continually to support the head held at an angle.

His conclusion, in the journal Surgical Technology International, is that, when the head is held at 60 degrees, the spine feels the weight of the head as five times its actual mass. Dr Hansraj said he is already having to treat the consequences of this.

“I’m a spinal surgeon, I see 100 patients a week; over time, I must have seen 30,000 patients or more,” he said “It just incrementally became an issue, especially among young people. They were coming in with neck and back pain.”

One recent case, he said, was particularly extreme. “There was a man, I had operated on him but he still had tremendous back and neck pain. I applied all my strategies but none worked. One day we were chatting and he happened to say: I spend four hours a day playing games on my iPad. I asked him to show me how he did it. His head was down at 60 degrees.”

Dr Hansraj taught him how to play on iPad while keeping his head vertical – and the pain went.

Jonathan Dearing, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon and spokesman for the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, was not surprised by the idea that holding your head in a fixed position for a long time could cause problems. “Any excessive activity in a certain position is bad for you, “he said. “Common sense dictates that if any part of your body is complaining, if something is aching, it’s your body’s way of something is wrong, so you should be sensible and stop doing it.” He added that holding this particular posture for a long period of time was not necessarily a new phenomenon: “You could replace a mobile phone with a book. People have been reading for a long time.”

If that does not convince, there is another corollary of text neck that a teenager might find more persuasive: too much texting may well leave them with a neck like a tortoise.

Nichola Joss is a skincare artist to the stars and she says she has seen a very particular trend among her customers. “I am definitely seeing more clients with premature ageing on their necks as a result of using smartphones,” she said. “It’s not necessarily lines and wrinkles, but more sagging skin, which is very ageing.”

Luckily, Dr Hansraj says there is an easy solution to both sore backs and sagging necks. “My goal is not to scare people away from this wonderful technology. I would just say there are better ways to view devices. You don’t have to bend your neck: just hold your smartphone a bit higher and angle your eyes down.”

Problem solved? Possibly. Except there is another ailment, cited recently in medical literature. It can be contracted irrespective of posture. It causes pain in the joints. The first reports are already in. Are you ready for iPad shoulder?

The Times November 22nd 2014