If recent news reports have you worried about getting "text neck," don't be. While a new study shows that lowering your head to text, email, or play around on your smartphone could theoretically wreck your spine, it lacks any real world evidence.
The study came to its conclusion with a computer model, not real-world humans, says Dr. Ian Dorward, professor of neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery at Washington University in St. Louis. "Computer modeling is entirely contingent upon assumptions," says Dorward.
"The reality is your neck is designed to flex forward and backward and to extend," Dorward says. "And with no additional weight put onto the head, the actual load put on the cervical spine when craning your neck is manageable. As a surgeon, I spend much of my time looking down at patients with my head lowered more than 60 degrees. I also wear a headlight and sometimes leaded glasses, which put an additional pound or so on my head. According to the study, this would cause the weight loaded onto my spine to skyrocket."
What's more, while texting may be new in the last 15 years or so, craning our necks most definitely is not. "We're talking about a posture humans have had for thousands of years," Dorward says. "Our ancestors bent forward to cook and work with tools. And back when reading actual books was more common, people spent way more time in this position. This is a posture that our bodies can accommodate."
While "text neck" may be a baseless condition, that's not to say that good posture isn't important. "Overall, it's best to keep your spine in a neutral, upright position," Dorward says. "If you spend an inordinate amount of time with your head or trunk in abnormal positions, it can cause some overuse issues and tax some muscles that are not used to being taxed. But even that can be overcome with exercise or physical therapy. There's no evidence that it's a real issue."
But what is a very real — and increasingly common — issue for the spine is having a beer belly. "When you're overweight or obese, you have an additional load on your body that does strain the spine," Dorward says. "Imagine lugging around a 100-pound backpack. Even if you're standing in a neutral posture, that'll stress the spine. But obesity makes it even worse than that, because a lot of men carry most of their excess weight in their abdomen, which shifts the center of gravity forward and puts them at a mechanical disadvantage. Over time that really does lead to a lot of stress on the spine."
In short, dropping a few pounds will help out your spine a lot more than putting down your iPhone. That said, texting still can be hazardous — just not biomechanically. The real danger is that we do it all the time when we shouldn't be, such as while driving. Texting behind the wheel makes you 23 times more likely to crash your car. And a recent AT&T survey found that even though 98 percent of car commuters realize that texting while driving is dangerous, nearly half still do it — more than 40 percent even call it a habit.
Walking while texting is also a growing problem. An Ohio State University study found that the number of pedestrian injuries related to using cellphones while walking more than doubled between 2005 and 2010 — even though total pedestrian injuries declined during those years. The researchers expect the number to have doubled again by next year. It's no wonder so many walking texters are getting hurt: A study from Stony Brook University discovered that we tend to walk 33 percent slower when texting and are much more likely to veer off-course.
"I am guilty of this too," says Dorward. "Sometimes I'll walk around the hospital catching up on email on my phone, and I'll walk into a wall. Something like walking doesn't usually require a lot of attention, but when you pour all of your attention into that little device, you can find yourself in some uncompromising circumstances."