Smartphones are a pain in the neck for children, osteopath warns

Looking at screens for too long can cause spinal pain. Photograph: Getty
Looking at screens for too long can cause spinal pain. Photograph: Getty
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A leading osteopath has warned that long-term use of smartphones and tablets is leading to a huge rise in the number of children and teenagers diagnosed with chronic back and neck pain.

Gavin Routledge said he was now seeing more than 100 youngsters each year – with hand-held devices being one of the main contributory factors – whereas previously he saw one or two young patients annually with pain caused by sports or dance practice injuries.

Routledge, clinic director of active X backs in Edinburgh, 
 said: “Children are developing back and neck pain earlier in life, and an increasing level. It’s due to a combination of factors – the increasing use of technology and looking down at screens and low levels of physical activity.”

British Chiropractic Association research shows people spend 1.8 hours a day on tablets or phones, 3.7 hours on laptops and computers and 1.4 hours gaming

“The adult head weighs about 10 pounds and if you move it forward the more load it exerts on your spine. With kids, their heads are heavier and their muscles aren’t yet fully developed. Yet they could easily have their heads hanging down for half an hour on tablets,” Routledge said.

“In the short term young people suffer muscle fatigue, and start to ache in the back and neck. That can be OK, but the longer it goes on it puts strain on developing joints and discs which could prevent them developing in a healthy manner.”

Routledge, vice patron of the British School of Osteopathy, said the youngest patient he had seen was nine years old.

“When I explain what’s causing the problem parents are often embarrassed it has got to this point, and surprised, too.

“They’ll admit their child has been on a game or tablet for one-and-a-half hours and felt pain soon afterwards.

“I tell parents that it’s very important to try to make 
sure their children are not leaning forward for long periods. But we all know that when children get really engaged they and their parents don’t know how much time they are spending looking down.”

One suggestion he made to parents and children was to use a suction pad on the back of the tablet meaning it can be held in one hand, at face level.

Routledge has launched the #AMillionBetterBacks campaign to help as many people as possible understand back pain so they can do more to help themselves.

He has written a book on the subject which he aims to publish through the crowd funding site, running until this Friday.

Dr Ross McDonald, president of the Scottish Chiropractic Association, agreed with Routledge and also raised the possibility of early onset arthritis in people in their 30s.

McDonald, of Discover Chiropractic in Edinburgh, said: “People think arthritis is age-related but it is stress and strain related. We don’t fully know what changes we are going to see in the future but early arthritis symptoms are being seen in people in their early 30s instead of the expected 60s and 70s.

“I’m seeing up to a dozen children a week and encourage them to change posture and do certain exercises involving stretching the muscles. The injuries should go away when treated but may return when they are older, doing assignments and exams.”