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On an average, smartphone users in India spend 3 hours and 18 minutes on their phones daily. According to technology company Ericsson’s “Consumer Insight Summary Report", released in July, this represents a 20% increase in the past two years.

There is no doubt that smartphones have become smarter—there are more apps to use, games to hold your interest and instant messaging apps for you to stay virtually connected with friends and family. In fact, in a global smartphone-user behaviour survey in 2010, Nokia (now Microsoft Mobile Devices) had revealed that users check their phone 150 times in a day on an average.

Now take a minute to think about your body. The head weighs 4.5-5.4kg in the upright position. As you tilt it, the gravitational pull and the centre of mass located at the top of the head, combine to add more stress on the spine. “As the head tilts forward, the force seen by the neck surges to 27 pounds (12.24kg) at 15 degrees, 40 pounds at 30 degrees, 49 pounds at 45 degrees and 60 pounds at 60 degrees," writes Kenneth K. Hansraj in his 2014 study, ‘Assessment Of Stresses In The Cervical Spine Caused By Posture And Position Of The Head’, published in the journal ‘Surgical Technology International’. Dr Hansraj is the chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, US. To understand how much damage smartphone addiction is doing to your neck, eyes and spine, read on.

Neck

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“The neck is designed to be erect. When we keep bending we are straining our spine and, in turn, the supporting muscles (around the spine and in the upper back), bones and ligaments. This increases the wear and tear of the joints in the spine, including the disc between two bones. Increased strain in the neck can cause ‘slip disc’, which can eventually compress the nerves, leading to shooting pain that spreads to the hand," says S.S. Praharaj, consultant neurosurgeon, Fortis Hospitals, Bengaluru. Severe disc prolapse can even cause compression of the spinal cord and in rare cases, might lead to paralysis.

A.B. Govindaraj, chief orthopaedic and joint replacement surgeon at the Fortis Malar Hospital, Chennai, says: “Constantly staring at a smartphone screen can cause significant neck strain and can lead to cervical spondylosis. And sometimes a wrinkle-like line can form around the neck. This is reversible by changing the way one uses phones."

There are ways of dealing with neck discomfort. Dr Praharaj suggests doing basic neck exercises regularly. “Generally if people exercise, their muscles would be strong enough to withstand the load. But they don’t, therefore their muscles are weak, which leads to such complexities." Doing neck stretches also takes the stress off the cervical discs.

Eyes

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Human eyes are adapted mainly to distance vision. “Constant near work leads to a plethora of symptoms collectively called computer vision syndrome. These are—blurring of vision, difficulty in focusing, headache, irritation, dry eyes, redness, double vision, neck and shoulder pain," says Ritu Arora, senior consultant, ophthalmology, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Patparganj.

With any developing eye-strain-related condition, there will be advance indications—discomfort, pain, redness and vision issues. That leaves enough time for corrective measures. “About a 12- to 14-inch gap is the comfortable viewing distance for handheld gadgets (such as smartphones, tablets and Kindle)," says Dr Arora.

Also, a proper posture should be maintained while working with modern-day gadgets. Avoid using them while in bed, lying down or while sitting on the chair in a relaxed position. Proper lighting and regular work breaks may help improve visual comfort.

You can also install the Bluelight Filter for Eye Care app for Android smartphones (free download on the Google Play Store). Apart from dimming the brightness, it places a filter between the content on the screen and your eyes, and the opacity level can be increased or decreased. The app offers preset filters—natural, yellow, brown, red and black, depending on what your eye finds more comfortable.

Spine

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Anil Arora, principal consultant, orthopaedics, at the Max Super Speciality Hospital, Patparganj, New Delhi, says, “This kind of stress causes weakening of the musculature, leading to inflammation at the vertebrae." With the passage of time, he says, this impinges on the nerve roots, leading to pain in the neck and, in more severe conditions, weakness in the arms along with pain and numbness. “Collectively, this condition is known as cervical spondylitis," he says.

J.V. Srinivas, consultant and joint replacement surgeon, Fortis Hospitals, Bengaluru, highlights the possible problems: “Spine problems can be a real issue with smartphone or tablet users and it is essential to learn appropriate body mechanics so you’re not putting long-term strain on your spine. It leads to acute muscle strain and ligament sprain, leading to spondylitis."

Any problem with the spine can be scary.

Dr Arora says one should do neck-muscle-strengthening exercises two-three times every day, which should include active and passive flexion and extension and a sideways range of neck movements. “Correct posture can go a long way in avoiding the smartphone syndrome, but there are a few other simple steps you can take when you’re using your smartphone that can help you too. Bring the phone to eye level instead of tilting your head down to see the screen. Keep your head centred over your spine to reduce strain on your upper back and neck. Use a hands-free headset, especially for longer conversations. This will help you avoid straining your forearm and wrist by holding the phone in one position for a long period of time," says Dr Srinivas.

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