Why your gadgets can make you ill, and what to do about it

Digital eye strain, toasted skin syndrome, cellphone elbow are among physical effects of Hongkongers' overuse of electronic devices. But what of your emotional wellbeing?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 6:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 6:23am

If you've been feeling more bent out of shape than usual lately, you might want to blame your gadgets. Tense neck, stiff thumbs, sore back: according to health experts, these symptoms are the result of years of hunching over your computers and laptops, texting at all times of the day and night, and staring into your tablet or smartphone screens.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Dr Winnie Mui, a general practitioner with Doctor Laura Bramley & Partners in Central, sees many patients with a range of other ailments related to an overuse of gadgets, from insomnia or restless sleep to headaches, constipation and even dermatitis.

And if your symptoms are bad now, expect them to get worse in the long run. "Keep using your gadgets the way you are, and you may find yourself with a host of health problems in years to come," says Dr Mui.

There's a risk of developing repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger; hearing problems from using earphones; neck strain, which can, over time, cause the spinal bones and discs to degenerate; back muscle spasms from sitting in the same position for prolonged periods; "cellphone elbow", which can lead to numbness and then pain as the nerve gets stretched from holding your phone to your ear for an extended amount of time; leg numbness or perhaps even deep vein thrombosis from prolonged sitting.

Then there's "toasted skin syndrome", caused by heat from your laptop burning your skin; an inability to concentrate, which can increase your risk of making mistakes or having an accident; and, if you're a man who works with a laptop on his lap, sperm production issues due to heat generated by the device.

Parveen Ebrahim, a certified yoga teacher and therapist at The Yoga Effect has many clients seeking relief from muscular tension and discomfort in their upper body. "If the spine's natural curves are habitually flattened or exaggerated, the body adapts to this misalignment and the surrounding muscles have to work harder to compensate, causing muscular strain in the neck, shoulders and upper back, and other symptoms such as headaches," she says.

"Anatomically speaking, the head should sit balanced directly on top of the cervical spine, ears over shoulders. A protruded head and neck pull the centre of gravity forward - causing excessive pressure on the cervical spine - with harmful flow-on effects throughout the musculoskeletal system. As the shoulders and back habitually round, the muscles at the front of the body shorten and tighten, and the erector spinae muscles at the back - needed to hold us upright - eventually weaken."

Worried yet? You should be. Dr Eric Lam Cheung-hing, a specialist in orthopaedics and traumatology at Matilda International Hospital, says in extreme cases of neck and back problems, compression of the spinal cord can lead to walking difficulties, problems passing urine, or even paralysis in the limbs.

And let's not forget the impact that frequent gadget use has on the eyes. The Vision Council, a non-profit group that represents the optical industry, recently released its 2015 Digital Eye Strain report, which found that 61 per cent of adults experience some type of digital-related eye strain due to the prolonged use of electronic devices.

Keep using your gadgets the way you are, and you may find yourself with a host of health problems in years to come
Dr Winnie Mui, GP

Dr Eric Au Wah-cheong, a family medicine specialist at Matilda, says computer vision syndrome is an issue.

"Increasing dependence on tablet computers, smartphones, computers and the like has left many young people with eye problems that usually affect older people," he says.

"Digital eye strain is characterised as temporary physical discomfort felt after two or more hours in front of a digital screen, and is associated with the close to mid-range distance of digital screens."

The problem shows up as redness, irritation or dry eyes, blurred vision, eye fatigue, back and neck pain, and headaches. External factors that can contribute to the condition include the small size of the text on screens, long periods staring at the screen, poor posture, bad computer set-up, existing and/or untreated vision issues, and the blue light emitted from digital screens and lighting.

Overuse of gadgets can take a toll on us emotionally, too. Parveen says that being perpetually connected or "wired" can create feelings of fatigue and stress, and affect your sense of well-being. Poor posture can limit your ability to breathe properly, which is important when it comes to managing stress.

Cutting back on gadget time and taking frequent breaks while using these devices are obvious solutions to preventing these physical and emotional problems. You might even choose to impose a gadget ban on yourself a couple of days a month, although this might be more difficult.

Dr Mui suggests limiting the amount of time you spend on non-work-related computer activities, such as playing games or checking your Facebook account - five minutes an hour might be enough for most of us. Taking water and bathroom breaks every now and again might also help. You can use this time to stretch your muscles, do eye exercises, or just sit still, breathe, and relax your mind.

To reduce digital eye strain, Dr Au says to take a 20-20-20 break. That is, every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet (six metres) away. You should also adjust the brightness of your device and change your background screen colour from bright white to cool grey. And never tilt your computer monitor - adjust your screen so that it is directly in front of your face and slightly below eye level. Make sure there is sufficient distance between your eyes and the screen. If you have to squint to read what's on the screen, increase the text size. Also, remind yourself to blink more often. Staring at the screen can affect the number of times you blink, causing dry eyes.

The right posture is also essential. Dr Lam says if you are using your laptop at your desk, you need to adjust the height of your chair so that your feet rest comfortably on the floor. Your knees should be flexed 90 degrees and be about level with your hips. You can place a cushion at the back of the chair to help support your lower back. Your back should be straight and aligned against the back of the chair at all times. Your screen should be about an arm's length away (about 40cm to 70cm). The top of the screen should be slightly below eye level. If you are a tablet user, Dr Lam advises buying stand to prop up the device, tilting it at a 60- to 70-degree angle to prevent neck strain.

Just being aware of how your body is aligned can help you improve your posture. The spine should follow its natural curve when seated or standing, Parveen says. The chest and chin should be gently lifted, ears over shoulders, and shoulders positioned back and down.

"When you find yourself looking down for an extended period of time, remember to look up and into the distance. Not only does this serve as a reminder to correct your alignment, it also helps relax the eyes. As we're often 'locked' into the forward-tilt position when seated, I can't stress enough the importance of movement. Frequently getting up to move, walk around, and stretch your neck, shoulders and back will improve your circulation, energy levels, and keep your joints healthy. Your body will thank you for it."