Posture and your smartphone
In this modern world, it’s hard to get by without using a smartphone. It’s such a valuable tool! It can help us map our way to a new location, communicate when away from the computer, and even make phone calls. But how is that new device affecting your body posture? Musculoskeletal pain didn’t originate with the mobile phone, but its use definitely hasn’t improved the amount of chronic pain people report. In this article, I’ll take a look at the effect that smartphone use has on posture and why it can sometimes lead to pain.
What is posture?
Before we get too far into discussing how your phone use can affect your structure, let’s take a step back and talk about posture generally. One broad definition of posture is the shape and arrangement of our body in gravity. Most generally, our posture is how we are positioned in space at any one point in time. But, what we often actually mean when we refer to “good posture,” in a health and wellness context is a structure that requires the least effort and minimizes stress on our body.
Posture and the smartphone
So what posture do we adopt when we pick up our smartphone? We’re probably aware that we tend to let our head fall down in front of us toward our phone. But there’s more going on than that. Our body tends to make adjustments to how we hold our pelvis and torso in order to support our head falling forward.
Those postural changes include things like increased thoracic kyphosis (rounded thoracic spine), increased lumbar lordosis (shortened low back area), and a forward inclination of our torso (leaning forward from the waist) (Betsch et al., 2021). But the effects don’t end there. Using our smartphone also affects how we hold our shoulders (Tapanya et al., 2021) and it affects muscles in our forearms and hands (Bodin et al., 2019).
What’s problematic about the changes we make in how we hold our body to accommodate holding our phone, is that we usually hold them for long periods of time and we do that regularly. One study found that mobile phone users spend on average more than 20 hours per week on their phone (Betsch et al., 2021). The more time we spend on our phone, the more likely our body adapts to that task, posturally.
Remember that our body is a “form follows function” organism. When we repeatedly do an action, our body will create a musculoskeletal form to support that action. That’s true whether it’s a pattern that’s ideal for our body in the long term or not. And that leads to compensations in the body that stick around in our body even after we put that phone down. Research has reported that musculoskeletal disorders are showing up in as high as 84% of smartphone users (Tapanya et al., 2021)! Ultimately those musculoskeletal compensations can result in inefficient movement at best and at worst pain and injury.
What areas are most affected?
As I said above, smartphone use can create changes in our posture from the pelvis up to our head. Remember the chain of joints works as a kinematic chain. The muscles that tend to show up with pain are at the end of that chain. Those are the muscles of the upper back, shoulders, and neck.
And, what happens when we let our head fall forward in front of our body? It gets heavy! And, the more we angle the front of our neck by letting the head hang forward the heavier the head gets. So, neck muscles like the upper trapezius and the cervical erector spinae, have to work hard to hold the head when we let it fall in front of our body rather than keep it on top of the spine.
This head-down position can also functionally shorten muscles such as the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid. When these muscles are chronically short and tight they can compress the thoracic outlet. They can also cause trigger points to form. These trigger points can create problems in the upper extremity and even headaches.
How to manage our phone use
It’s unlikely that smartphone use is going away any time soon. But we can change how we use it. Research suggests a few changes to how we hold our phones to minimize postural compensations. One general recommendation is just to regularly vary the posture we adopt when using our phone. Try to avoid getting into a habit of always holding your body in the same way when you use your phone. For on-the-go use, try bringing the phone up toward your face, rather than your head down to your phone.
Research suggests that flexing your shoulder joints at about a 30° angle to lift your phone results in the least unnecessary muscle activation (Tapanya et al., 2021). If you regularly use your phone in a stationary position, consider one of the phone stands that will lift up your phone to head height. That will allow you to relax your arms and shoulders as well as keep the head and neck in a more neutral position.
Tapanya, W., M. Swangnetr Neubert, R. Puntumetakul, and R. Boucaut. 2021. The effects of shoulder posture on neck and shoulder musculoskeletal loading and discomfort during smartphone usage. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. 85:103175.
Betsch, M., K. Kalbhen, R. Michalik, H. Schenker, M. Gatz, V. Quack, H. Siebers, M. Wild, and F. Migliorini. 2021. The influence of smartphone use on spinal posture – A laboratory study. Gait and Posture. 85:298-303.
Bodin, T., K. Berglund, and M. Forsman. 2019. Activity in neck-shoulder and lower arm muscles during computer and smartphone work. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. 74:102870.