The Tech Effect
Posted On Feb 23, 2017
When your smartphone starts to smart and your PC causes you not to see, it’s time to take a check of your tech.
By Scott Olson
Medical professionals began noticing something odd about their patients a few years ago. Young people who should be at the peak of health were showing up in clinics with increasing frequency. Sure, millennials might pay a visit to the doctor when a skateboard is crashed or a cold goes on too long, but the general health of youth keeps them happily afar from a physician’s exam table. Here many were, though, in the office complaining of neck pain, eye problems, headaches, and poor sleep. All these symptoms seemed to be unrelated until practitioners pieced together an interesting underlying cause: electronic devices.
Technology, and the way we use technology, can impact our health in dramatic ways. If you are the type of person who talks more with her fingers than her mouth, or breaks into a cold sweat at the thought of walking out the door without your phone, then it’s important to learn how to combat the effects of technology on your health (to maintain it for the long run).
SEE NO, HEAR NO PROBLEMS
Dr. Karen Saland, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, suggests that as many as 25 percent of her patients complain of eye problems from using technology. Ophthalmologists have coined the term Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) to describe a condition that includes dry, strained, burning, and irritated eyes, along with double vision, blurriness, and difficulty focusing. Headaches are also common in people with CVS, the condition can sometimes include extreme symptoms such as nausea or dizziness. “It is a concern,” says Dr. Saland “when we are on our screens we blink less,” and blinking keeps your eyes moist.
Blue light emanating from screens is also a concern. Dr. Saland suggests that blue light may increase the rate of cataract formation, macular degeneration, as well as disturb melatonin production (which can interfere with sleep).
Dr. Saland is an advocate of what she calls good screen habits. “Take a rest every 20 minutes and get away from your screen.” She also suggests a pair of work glasses that can reduce glare and block blue light, looking downward whenever possible to increase blinking, and consider using artificial tears to help keep eyes moist.
Studies suggest that computer screens should be set 12 to 24 inches away from your eyes. Dr. Saland also encourages her patients to make sure they don’t use screens in low-light areas and to make sure their vision prescription is correct and up to date.
Astaxanthin, an antioxidant carotenoid, has been shown in studies to support general eye health and it may also be a solution for eye fatigue. In a series of studies conducted in Japan, six milligrams of astaxanthin was shown to improve the eye’s ability to focus and reduce computer screen related fatigue. It can be taken in pill form, and is also found naturally in wild Pacific sockeye salmon, red trout, red seabream, lobster, shrimp, crawfish, crabs, and salmon roe.
Hearing loss is another side-effect of using personal devices. Studies have suggested that as many as one in five teens have some form of permanent hearing loss from using ear buds and headphones. The key to reducing ear damage is to understand that it is not only volume, but duration that causes damage. Studies have shown that as low as 85 decibels (about the sound of a food blender) for eight hours can lead to permanent hearing loss. Keeping volume low when using headphones is key to maintaining good hearing.
Dr. Darrin Robertson, a chiropractor in Littleton, Colorado, sees patients who show the effects of using technology all the time. We seem to assume an almost fetal position when using devices, he says: “People hold their hand-held device at waist or chest level, hunch their shoulders forward, and stare down at their device. This is a problem because every inch your head moves forward increases the perceived workload of the muscles holding up the head.”
Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, M.D., chief of spinal surgery at the New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, agrees. He investigated the effects of head-forward posture and determined that the average adult head weighs 10 to 12 pounds in neutral position, but as the head tilts 15 degrees forward, the force endured by the neck surges to 27 pounds. The conditions that develop from this posture at first are simply annoying in the form of a bit of achy muscle pain. But as time goes on, Dr. Hansraj says, these stresses may lead to early wear, tear, degeneration, and possibly surgery.
Dr. Robertson suggests that, “You have to retrain the body to counter the effects of the postural changes when using these devices. Think about the posture you are in when you are using devices and do the opposite.” He suggests lying flat on the ground, strengthening the rhomboids, a duo of muscles in the upper back, and stretching the pectoralis, the thick, fan-shaped muscle located in the chest area, to offer relief. Also important: Maintain a neutral neck position as much as possible when using devices.
Phones and computers are within easy reach of anyone who wants them for any reason and perpetuate an always-on culture, making it difficult for anyone to separate work from leisure. A whole range of mental issues, including anxiety, stress, decreased attention span, sleep disturbances, and depression have been linked to computer and smartphone use. Part of this is due to the addictive nature of our electronic devices (and the all-powerful FOMO—fear of missing out). Add to that poor sleep from melatonin suppression and you have a cycle of no sleep, increased anxiety, and increased stress.
And, of course, there is concern about cell phones and brain cancer. Large population studies, however, suggest that there is no link between nonionizing radiation from cell phones and brain cancer. The National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization both agree, but then suggest ways to reduce exposure. Mobile phones have only been around for few years and cancer takes years to develop. For now, it is wise to use headphones or the speakerphone setting whenever you plan to be on the phone for a long time.
The cure for all these tech troubles: Throw all your devices away. The realistic solution lies in understanding their powerful effects on our bodies. Taking a few simple, proactive steps (such as taking a break, stretching, and watching the volume) is all we need to stay healthy in the digital age.