When you think of the impressive feats the human body has accomplished—building pyramids, running marathons, all that good stuff—hunching over a cell phone to scroll through Instagram likely isn’t one of them.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with loving your phone. We live in a digital age, after all. But there might be something wrong with the way you use it. It might sound weird, but without proper form, prolonged cell phone use can cause a slew of issues from a painful neck to dry eyes and more. Fortunately, you don’t need to give up your phone entirely to help keep these problems at bay. Small changes can make all the difference.
Here, a look at a few common phone-related issues doctors see, plus how to prevent each one.
1. Tech neck
Obviously this isn’t an official medical term, but it generally refers to neck pain and associated discomfort that comes from frequently keeping your head and neck at a strange angle to use your phone.
The muscles in your neck work to support the weight of your head, which usually clocks in around 10 to 12 pounds. “[Neck] muscles are not large, but they’re good at what they need to if the neck is in good alignment,” Dominic King, D.O., an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and founder of The eSports Medicine Institute, tells SELF. When you tip your head forward to look down at your phone, that results in additional weight that your neck muscles have to bear. Tilting your head 60 degrees forward—imagine looking down at your phone in your lap with your chin almost touching your chest—can correlate with an extra 60 pounds of force on your neck.
If your neck frequently isn’t in good alignment as you use your phone, the muscles in the front of it can grow tight, and the ones in the back can become overextended, Dr. King explains. When you go back to your neck’s neutral, normal position, it can become harder for your muscles to hold your head up. That makes it sound like you’ll become a human bobblehead, but not really—instead, people with tech neck can deal with issues like neck pain, headaches, pain that radiates out to their shoulders, and numbness or tingling in their fingers. (The nerves in your neck can affect your shoulders, arms, and hands.)
- Try to keep your phone at eye level so you don’t have to tilt your head forward to see the screen, says Dr. King.
- Use your phone as often as you need or want to, but try to limit the time you spend using it for no reason out of habit. (You know—scrolling through the same old tweets you just saw five minutes ago.) With tech neck and other phone-related issues, it’s prolonged use that typically leads to problems.
- Get in the habit of taking breaks to stretch your neck when you use your phone for long periods. Gently tilt your head back and side to side, for example.
There’s actually a non-texting way to wind up with tech neck, too: Pinching your phone between your ear and your shoulder when having a verbal conversation. "Little cell phones aren't made for that. That brings the head to the side, which then overstrains muscles, ligaments, and tendons," says Dr. King. "It's such an unnatural position, and there is so much force put across your neck because of how thin the bones are." Old-school landline phones tended to be much bigger, almost cradling the head in a way that wouldn't be as damaging, he notes.
- Using headphones or earbuds is an easy fix, as is putting your phone on speaker if you're alone. Just make sure not to use max volume if you're plugged in. Noise from headphones can clock in around 105 decibels, and anything over 85 decibels can lead to hearing loss over time.
2. Numb thumb
This phrase describes a tingly, itchy, or burning numbness in your palm near your thumb that happens because of carpal tunnel syndrome, Ellen Casey, M.D., a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, tells SELF.
Carpal tunnel occurs when the median nerve in the, well, carpal tunnel in your hand becomes compressed. This tunnel is formed by the wrist bones and the ligament over them, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). “The median nerve provides sensation to the thumb,” Dr. Casey explains, and using your thumb a ton to text or scroll can pinch it, leading to swelling, she explains. This can result in carpal tunnel symptoms like pain, numbness, thumb muscle weakness, and decreased function, according to the NINDS.
- Text to speak is a good rule of thumb (pun very much intended), since it helps you avoid some of those repetitive finger motions that can contribute to carpal tunnel over time. (Much like tech neck, this usually isn’t something that’s going to strike out of nowhere—again, it’s about repetitive use.)
- Get a grip for the back of your phone that you can use to prop up the device on a surface. That way, you can use your other fingers to tap out messages, putting less stress on your hand, says Dr. King.
- Stretch your wrists and fingers regularly. For example, you can flex and curl your wrists, or alternate between making fists and extending your fingers.
3. Cell phone elbow
Cell phone elbow (or, in fancier terms, cubital tunnel syndrome), is when the ulnar nerve running from your neck to your hand and along your elbow gets compressed. It can cause aching, burning, numbness, or tingling around your elbow, down your arm into the pinky side of your hand, and into your pinky and ring fingers.
If you keep your elbow bent for a long time (when you’re talking on the phone or texting, for example), you can increase pressure on the ulnar nerve and compress it, especially if you’re adding pressure by leaning against a table, says Dr. Casey. Ow.
- If you spend a lot of time on the phone, switch hands frequently or use a hands-free headset to avoid (or shorten) time with your elbow bent.
- If you’re going to bend your elbows during marathon phone sessions, don’t lean them against hard surfaces the entire time.
- Stretch by putting your hands in prayer position at chest level, pushing your wrists farther down your body, then bringing them back up. Then, put your hands back to back (with your fingers pointing down), raise them until you feel a stretch, and bring them back down, says Dr. King. You can also extend your arms straight behind your body, flexing your elbows for a nice “aaah” moment.
4. Dry eyes
Staring at a screen for long periods of time can lead you to blink less than you normally would, which can cause seriously dry eyes, according to the National Eye Institute. When you blink, basal tears (also called your tear film) nourish your eyes, keeping them hydrated. When you're lost in an endless Twitter scroll? That process doesn't happen as much. In addition to dryness, this can cause some major irritation and symptoms like stinging, burning, and redness.
- Remind yourself to blink when you use your phone. You can come up with a rule for yourself, such as blinking five times to freshen your tear film every time you favorite a tweet.
- Try taking a 20-second break from your phone to look at something 20 feet away every 20 minutes or so, the American Optometric Association suggests.
If you’re noticing any of the above issues for longer than a week and the symptoms are getting in the way of your day-to-day, it’s important to see a medical professional.
This is especially true if you’re experiencing severe pain or stiffness in an area like your neck or numbness and tingling that are radiating down to your fingers. This could be a sign that whatever is causing your symptoms, like a pinched nerve, could be more serious, Dr. King says.
Ideally, you’d see a specialist based on your symptoms, like an occupational therapist who often treats people with technology-related postural problems if you have tech neck, or an ophthalmologist if your eyes always feel dehydrated when you’re using your phone. But if it’s easier or you’re not sure what’s going on, your primary care physician should be a great place to start.