by Mark Thisleton M.Ost.Med

How much time do you spend looking at laptops, tablet computers and smartphones? With the enterprise of technology has the come the demise of the spine. In an age where work is dominant and spare time is spent using technology what is becoming of our body? In the last 15 years, technology has evolved rapidly which has modified the way we live tremendously. For thousands of years, we spent time hunting/gathering for food, running and fighting for survival. We adapted and we evolved, and particularly over the last few decades we have become a much more sedentary species. This change in lifestyle can be seen in a number of today’s illnesses; diabetes, heart disease, certain forms of cancers and the numerous conditions we have been seeing in our clinic of poor musculoskeletal health.

Neck pain is being increasingly seen in our osteopathic clinic, much of which is down to the poor posture we have adopted when using these technological marvels. If neck pain is being seen frequently in the adult population, what will be the effects on our children who are adopting this posture much earlier and in such a crucial period in their skeletal development? Could they begin to develop musculoskeletal problems at an earlier age, and could they be risking themselves for future illness? Postural problems can start at an early age, and children of school age are being seen increasingly with not just neck pain, but low back pain also. Postural patterns that develop at an earlier age make it more difficult in later life to adjust and improve.

Much of what we do when using technology involves flexing our head and neck forward, with the result of looking down rather than straight ahead. This is fine if we do this temporarily, but what happens when were sat doing this for hours? Whether being at work, watching a film or playing games – most of us will be sat looking down at our tablets, mobile phones and laptops.

So what happens to our spine when were flexing our head and neck? The upper part of the spine is the cervical spine, and it is the most mobile spinal region. It also balances the head on the rest of the body for postural support. In the flexion movement, the vertebrae will slide anteriorly on one another and therefore all the structures (muscles, ligaments and discs) will be going through a relative strain in the back of the neck. (1 – functional anatomy of the spine) In extension, (the backward movement of the neck) the opposite will happen and a relative strain will occur in the anterior part of the neck. In a sustained posture of cervical spine flexion, you can see that the posterior neck structures will be in a strained position for a substantial amount of time. In the long run, what can occur from this is that muscles in the front of the neck will become more dominant and shorter due to them being contracted more frequently. Consequently, a forward head posture begins to occur and a clinical scenario may develop.  There can be many symptoms which may ensue from this resulting posture, and getting it rectified earlier than later may help to halt the process and in some cases reverse it. These symptoms may be; neck pain, shoulder pain, headaches, neurological symptoms like pain, numbness and pins and needles in the arms. (This is not an exhaustive list)

The use of computers and laptops have been found to influence spinal posture in both adults and adolescents, and with altered postures comes altered spinal loading. Altered spinal loading can invariably lead to musculoskeletal pain. Associations have been made between postures and neck/shoulder pain in adolescents concluded an Australian study. (2) The spine completes its ossification around the age of 25, (this is the process by which bone is formed) but bones themselves are a living tissue and will continue to adapt to stresses placed upon them. So, if your child spends time on tablet computers, smartphones and the like, he or she may be accelerating the effects of a forward head posture. The end result of this can be seen in many of the elderly, a rounded back called a kyphosis with a dowagers hump at the base of the neck. However, remember that this technology wasn’t around 50 years ago and therefore the postural adaptations that occur naturally may potentially result in your child developing this posture at an earlier age.

When any form of stress or strain is placed on the body, whether it be a traumatic incident like a whiplash, or a chronic postural strain of certain muscle tissues; the end result is almost always an accelerated degenerative process. Wear and tear in the spinal discs is known as spondylosis, and in the joints as spondyloarthrosis. Headaches are a common complaint, and may be as a result of issues within you or child’s posture. So if this seems familiar, as osteopaths we can help to diagnose and treat this or in certain circumstances refer you to the appropriate physician.

I have briefly discussed how the neck and head may be affected, but what happens to the rest of your child’s spine? Well, when sitting down there is a general increase of pressure within the discs and because of one of the muscles (the psoas major) being highly active when sitting, an increase in compressive force occurs within the spine. In the normal spine, sitting in a slumped posture (which children have the tendency to do) will cause the posterior fibres of the disc along with the ligaments to overstrain. The sustained postures of the spine when sitting playing games or watching programmes on laptops and tablets make the likelihood of injury to these structures greater. From then on, once damage has occurred there will most likely be a weak point for future injury and further reoccurrence. The nutrition and health of the disc is dependent on a variation of postures and plenty of movement, so try to not allow your child to sit in one position for too long. If you catch them slumping, ask them to move to a more comfortable position and let them know why you have asked them to move. Back pain is so common, and such a costly affliction of the western world that starting to teach your children early of the consequences could be very beneficial.

Although technology has made our lives much easier, it isn’t doing our health many favours. With the modern lifestyle being so sedentary, our health concerns will continue to be there lingering in the backgrounds. It will take thousands and thousands of years for our bodies to adapt to this way of life, and by which time we will have encountered new problems. Any chance you get when at work or when your child is away from school, try and utilise the body. It can respond so well to minor changes that you may make. At lunch time, go for a small walk outside, get off the bus one stop earlier and if driving to school park 5 minutes away. Just by doing this, you will improve the general health of your child, your health and your overall well being.

1 – Middleditch A, J Oliver. Functional Anatomy of the Spine. London. Elsevier. 2005

2 – Straker L M,  P B O’Sullivan, A Smith, M Perry. Computer Use and Habitual Spinal Posture in Australian Adolescents. Public Health Reports. 2007. 122;634-643