Preventing back pain caused by mobile phone use

Taryn Davies
Published: April 16, 2015

Are you reading this on your mobile or another tech device? Chances are a lot of you are, and in doing so you’re creating niggling problems for your neck and back health.

As our lifestyles become more and more sedentary, and we're repeatedly looking down at phones and other devices, there has been a surge in the number of young people experiencing back and neck pain.

The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) are pointing an accusatory finger at the repetitive nature of mobile phone usage.

Figures are up 28% on last year for under 30s who are in constant pain, and the number has risen across all ages groups too.

mobile phone

Do you hunch over when you're on your mobile?

Chiropractor Tim Hutchful of the BCA explains that modern lifestyles encourage us to stay seated. But he admits he is worried about the number of patients he now sees that are under 30.

His top tip is to take breaks to relieve tension build up, whether you're on your phone or tablet, watching TV or at your desk.

Most 16 to 24-year-olds rarely go an hour without looking at a mobile phone or device, whether this is to text, email or to check social media, however, continuously straining the neck and back forces the head into an unnatural and unsupported position, causing pain and fatigue, argues Mr Damian Fahy.

Mr Damian Fahy, Consultant Spinal Surgeon at The Lister Hospital, London ( argues the potential risks of fatigue, tension and pain from young people using phones and devices so regularly. We've spoken to him about how to use devices safely to prevent strain.

Can sending text messages and emails on your phone impact the health of your spine?

“Our spines are designed for a comfortable upright posture. When using smartphones and tablets to send and receive emails, text messages and catch up with social media as well as using laptops, we often peer downwards with our necks bent forwards. This puts the neck in an unnatural position so that the weight of the head needs to be supported by the muscles at the back of the neck. The longer we stay in that position the more tired the muscles become leading to fatigue and muscle pain.

"Using an iPad or a laptop in this position with your head facing downwards, for any activity - including to send emails, watch TV or play games - for longer than 20 minutes will build up muscle strain."

Could sending text messages and emails on your phone lead to spinal damage?

"Although the pain can be intense, it is unlikely to cause long-term structural damage to the spine. It may hurt but is unlikely to harm. Structural damage is more likely to be a result of genetic factors or a history of injury or trauma to the spine."

neck pain

Follow these tips to prevent pain

Do you have any tips or advice to give to regular users of devices such as phones and iPads?

"We cannot avoid using these devices which have had an amazing effect on our daily lives, we do need to learn how to use them safely and comfortably.

  1. I recommend using voice-recognition software such as dictation apps on your device. I find Siri to be very helpful in limiting the amount of time I spend with my head in the wrong position
  2. When using your phone or device, try to keep it at eye-level to reduce the fatigue
  3. When on the phone, try to walk around to allow a more natural posture, using a headset or an earphone device is a great way of making the technology fit you, not the other way around
  4. Take a break from messaging. Don't consistently use a phone, laptop or iPad for longer than 20 minutes unless it is at eye-level, or muscle fatigue will build up
  5. Take control of your spinal health. If your job requires you to sit for most of the day, use the muscles you aren't using during that time when exercising. Pilates and swimming are helpful in toning and strengthening these muscles. We have to train to be fit to lead the lives we do nowadays.

If the pain does not subside, I would recommend seeing an osteopath or a physiotherapist to build an exercise programme to strengthen the muscles. Acupuncture can also be very beneficial in reducing spinal pain."

How to keep those niggling aches at bay

crouching over tech

Add height underneath laptops to ease pressure on the back

  • Strengthen your back muscles by practising yoga, walking, cycling and swimming.
  • Quit smoking to boost blood supply to discs in your back.
  • Take your wallet out of your back pocket to prevent pressure on your back when you sit.
  • A well-fitting bra can ease the strain that a big bust places on women’s backs and shoulders.
  • Don’t sit for more than 20 minutes at a time.
  • Watch your weight. Extra pounds shift the centre of gravity, straining the lower back.
  • Try not to wear a heel higher than an inch. If stilettos are a must, carry flats to change into.
  • When using a desktop computer, make sure the top of the screen is at eyebrow level.
  • Put a laptop on books to prevent hunching.