Smartphone 'phubbing' can be a real pain in the neck

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 12:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 4:32am

A good Lunar New Year's resolution might be to stop checking your smartphone all the time, as the habit can lead to irreversible health consequences.

"Phubbing", which means snubbing others by looking at your phone, is harmful not only to your family and social life, but also to your neck.

A neurosurgeon has warned that frequent head-tilting, in which the neck bends by 60 degrees, can exert six times more pressure on the cervical vertebrae than is normal.

The cervical vertebrae consist of seven bones linking the head and shoulder.

Cervical degeneration, which usually occurs in people older than 40 due to prolonged stress on the neck, has become more common among young people with the spread of phubbing, according to Dr Harold Cheng Kin-ming, who is a specialist in neurosurgery.

Cheng said the cervical vertebrae of many young people under 30 were showing signs of stress normally seen in someone in their 40s.

Cheng said he has been seeing more young patients with cervical problems in the past five years. Now, more than one-fifth of his patients with such issues are under 35. In the past, he said the figure was about 10 per cent.

Cheng said that when a cervical vertebra is damaged, it can lead to a stiff neck or even intense pain for the victim. He warned that the nerves nearby could also become compressed, which would lead to numbness in the arms, a loss of balance, and at worst, incontinence.

In 2013, 3,214 people were admitted to hospitals due to neck or other intervertebral disc disorders, according to figures from the Department of Health.

There was a trend for the number of cases to increase in the last five years, while the figures for before 2007 were always lower than 3,000.

Anti-inflammatory painkillers and muscle relaxants can be used to mitigate the pain and to relieve stiff muscles. Normally, the symptoms will be reduced in about two weeks.

However, long-term use of glucosamine and Omega 3 fish-oil supplements is needed to fix the cartilage and increase the flexibility of joints. Physiotherapy is also required as part of a recovery programme.

But Cheng warned that even with these measures, some neck injuries - such as a prolapsed intervertebral disc, or slipped disc - were irreversible. And the degeneration would only intensify as the patient got older.

Cheng also cautioned that people with a sore neck often stretch or crack it, which can easily cause a tear in the vertebral artery and potentially lead to a stroke.

To reduce the pressure on neck, Cheng suggested tilting the phone or tablet vertically or placing it on a stand, and taking break every 15 to 30 minutes.