Bad Posture During Computer Use Leads to Back Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It's no secret that staring into a computer screen for too long can lead to a stiff neck or back pain. Many of us instinctively lean forward to get a closer look at laptop or tablet, without being fully aware of how bad our posture is or what it’s doing to our spines.

Researchers at San Francisco State University say this “head-forward position” compresses the neck and can lead to fatigue, headaches, poor concentration and muscle tension. And it takes less than a minute for the symptoms to start.

"When your posture is tall and erect, the muscles of your back can easily support the weight of your head and neck -- as much as 12 pounds," says Erik Peper, PhD, a Professor of Holistic Health at San Francisco State University.

"But when your head juts forward at a 45-degree angle, your neck acts like a fulcrum, like a long lever lifting a heavy object. Now the muscle weight of your head and neck is the equivalent of about 45 pounds. It is not surprising people get stiff necks and shoulder and back pain."

Peper and his colleagues tested the effects of head and neck position in a recent study published in the journal Biofeedback.

SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

First, they asked 87 students to sit upright with their heads properly aligned on their necks and asked them to turn their heads. Then the students were asked to "scrunch" their necks and jut their heads forward. Ninety-two percent reported being able to turn their heads much farther when they were not scrunching.

In a second test, 125 students scrunched their necks for 30 seconds. Afterwards, 98 percent reported some level of pain in their head, neck or eyes.

“Most participants were totally surprised that 30 seconds of neck scrunching would rapidly increase symptoms and induce discomfort. It provided motivation to identify situations that evoked neck scrunching and avoid those situations or change the ergonomics,” Peper said.  

What can you do to prevent yourself from scrunching? Two easy solutions would be to increase the font size on your computer screen or get a pair of computer reading glasses. You can also make sure your computer screen is at eye level, which will reduce the temptation to lean forward.

If you suffer from headaches or neck and backaches from computer work, check your posture and make sure you are sitting upright, with your head aligned on top of your neck.

"You can do something about this poor posture very quickly," says Peper, who recommends people test themselves by scrunching forward and try rotating their head. Until they do that, many have no idea how bad posture contributes to back and neck pain.

"You can exaggerate the position and experience the symptoms. Then when you find yourself doing it, you can become aware and stop," he said.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Nevada Las Vegas found that 60 percent of students have persistent pain in their neck and shoulders -- often caused by slouching or bending to watch their iPads or tablets. Women were twice as likely as men to experience neck and shoulder pain during tablet use.

Lyrica and Neurontin Ineffective for Low Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Lyrica, Neurontin and other anti-convulsant drugs are ineffective for treating low back pain and may even be harmful to patients, according to a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Prescriptions for anti-convulsant drugs have soared in recent years, as doctors seek “safer” alternatives to opioid pain medication.  Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) belong to a class of anti-convulsant nerve medications known as gabapentinoids. They are primarily used for treating nerve pain and fibromyalgia, but are increasingly being prescribed off-label to treat lower back and neck pain.

Australian researchers reviewed 9 placebo-controlled randomized trials and found high quality evidence that gabapentinoids did not reduce back pain or disability and often had side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness and nausea.

“The take-home message is that anti-convulsants are not effective and can lead to adverse effects in people with low back pain and radiating leg pain (eg, sciatica), so they should not be recommended to this patient population,” lead author Oliver Enke, MD, a researcher at the University of Sydney Medical School, told Helio Family Medicine.

Low back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability. Guidelines for treating low back pain usually recommend physical therapy, exercise and non-opioid pain relievers rather than stronger analgesics such as opioids or anti-convulsants.

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A 2017 study published in PLOS Medicine also warned that pregabalin and gabapentin were ineffective for low back pain and have a “significant risk of adverse effects.” 

PNN readers often complain about side effects from Lyrica and Neurontin.

“I have used both medicines and neither help with lower back pain for me,” said Sheri. “I will say the mental confusion and memory loss on Lyrica is very real, but it takes a slight edge of pain away in my body as a whole from the fibromyalgia.”

“I can vouch that Lyrica does not help with back pain,” said Debra. “It helped with the nerve pain but I thought I was literally losing my mind. I couldn't remember simple words or synonyms for words.”

“I've been taking gabapentin for almost six months; it has helped my peripheral neuropathy, but I still suffer every day from arthritis in every joint of my body, including my lower back,” another reader wrote.

Lyrica and Neurontin are both made by Pfizer and are two of the company’s top selling drugs, generating billions of dollars in sales annually. Lyrica is approved by the FDA to treat diabetic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, post-herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles, and spinal cord injuries.

Neurontin is approved by the FDA to treat epilepsy and neuropathic pain caused by shingles, but is also widely prescribed off-label to treat depression, ADHD, migraine, fibromyalgia and bipolar disorder. According to one estimate, over 90% of Neurontin sales are for off-label uses. About 68 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in the U.S. last year, compared to 44 million in in 2013.

There have been increasing reports of gabapentinoids being abused by drug addicts, who have learned they can use the medications to heighten the high from heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other substances. Gabapentin is not currently scheduled as a controlled substance by the DEA, while pregabalin is classified as a Schedule V controlled substance, meaning it has a low potential for addiction and abuse.  

Women Most at Risk for ‘iPad Neck’

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you have neck and shoulder pain and regularly use an iPad or tablet device, there’s a good chance the two are connected. Especially if you’re a young woman.

A recent study of over 400 university students, alumni and staff found that 60 percent have persistent pain in the neck and upper shoulders – often caused by slouching or bending to watch their iPads or tablet computers. Over two-thirds (68%) said they experienced symptoms while using their tablets.

"Such high prevalence of neck and shoulder symptoms, especially among the younger populations, presents a substantial burden to society," said lead author Szu-Ping Lee, PhD, a physical therapy professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. His study was published last week in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.

The top risk factor for “iPad neck” was surprising. Women were twice as likely as men to experience neck and shoulder pain during tablet use.

“Our study revealed that females and individuals with current musculoskeletal symptoms were more likely to be at risk for neck and shoulder symptoms,” Lee wrote.

“Certain postures during use were also identified as important risk factors, specifically sitting without back support and with the tablet in lap were significantly associated with symptoms during use.”

UNLV IMAGE

UNLV IMAGE

The most frequently reported symptoms were stiffness, soreness or aching pain in the neck, upper back, shoulder, arms, hands or head. Most of those surveyed (55%) reported moderate discomfort, but 10 percent said their symptoms were severe and 15 percent said it affected their sleep. Less than half (46%) said they stopped using the devices when they felt discomfort.

Lee says the findings concern him, especially given the growing popularity of tablets, e-book readers, and other devices for personal, school and business purposes. At PNN, we know that about 10 percent of our readers use iPads or tablets.

Almost half of the tablet users surveyed use their devices for three or more hours each day. Flexing the neck forward for long periods of time puts pressure on your spine, causing neck and shoulder pain. Sedentary behavior and bad posture while reading are also contributing factors.

Researchers say many students sit cross-legged on the floor when studying on their tablets. Interestingly, women were far more likely (77%) to use their tablets while sitting on the floor than men (23%).

Lee offered these tips to avoid iPad neck:

  • Sit in a chair with back support.
  • Use a posture reminder device -- small, wearable devices that beep to alert you when you're slouching.
  • Place your iPad on a stand (rather than a flat surface) and attach a keyboard to achieve a more upright posture.
  • Exercise to strengthen your neck and shoulder muscles.

"Using these electronic devices is becoming a part of our modern lives," Lee said. "In order to reduce the risk of developing long-term neck and shoulder problems, we need to think about how technology like tablet computer affects human ergonomics and posture."

Why Smoking is a Pain in the Neck

By Pat Anson, Editor

Need another reason to stop smoking? What if you knew it was causing that pain in your neck?

That’s the conclusion of a new study being presented this week at the annual meeting of the Association of Academic Physiatrists. In a study of 182 patients who were given CT scans,  researchers found that smokers were more likely to have cervical degenerative disc disease.

“This is another example of the detrimental effects of smoking. Tobacco abuse is associated with a variety of diseases and death, and there are lifestyle factors associated with chronic neck pain,” says lead investigator Mitchel Leavitt, MD, resident physician at Emory University’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

“Pain and spine clinics are filled with patients who suffer chronic neck and back pain, and this study provides the physician with more ammunition to use when educating them about their need to quit smoking.”

The cervical spine is located in the neck and is made up of bones called vertebrae. Between these bones are cervical discs that absorb shock to the spine. Through the normal aging process, these discs slowly degenerate, which means they become dehydrated and shrink.

In some cases, the drying of the disc may cause cracks and tears, through which some of the jelly-like central portion of the disc may spill out and irritate local nerves. That can result in pain in the shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.

It isn’t only wear and tear that can damage these discs. Some unhealthy habits, such as smoking, can add to cervical disc degeneration.

“Smoking is not healthy for a person’s intervertebral discs given the risk of developing microvascular disease – a disease of the small blood vessels – due to nicotine abuse,” says Leavitt. “Intervertebral discs receive their nourishment from the microvasculature that line the endplates on either side of each disc; when these blood vessels are damaged, the discs do not receive nourishment and this may speed up the degenerative process.”

While smoking has been associated with degeneration in the lumbar spine, this was one of the first studies to make the association with the cervical spine.  The patients evaluated by Leavitt and his colleagues were mostly female (57 percent), and about a third were smokers. A radiologist and a physiatrist – a physician who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation – reviewed their CT scans for signs of cervical degenerative disc disease. The amount of damage was rated on a scale of zero to 15.

Current smokers were found to have more cervical degenerative disc disease and were given a "damage score" that was about one point higher, on average. Not surprisingly, researchers also found that aging was associated with worsening cervical degenerative disc disease, but diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and high BMI were not.

Leavitt believes more research is needed on other lifestyle factors, such as high fat diets, alcohol use and obesity to see how they relate to chronic back and neck pain.

“Virtually everyone knows that moderate exercise somewhere around four to five times per week is beneficial, plus other lifestyle factors like avoidance of smoking and a proper diet are equally important. However, these topics are usually geared towards heart health, lowering blood pressure, managing diabetes, or controlling other medical conditions, and not specific to the spine,” Leavitt said. “It is one thing to live to the age of 95, and it is another to live to 95 while retaining one's mobility and being free of pain. Lifestyle medicine will likely play a large role in the future of healthcare, and having plenty of data to support lifestyle management is critical.”

Previous studies have found that smoking increases your chances of having several types of chronic pain conditions.

A study of over 6,000 Kentucky women found that those who smoked had a greater chance of having fibromyalgia, sciatica, chronic neck pain, chronic back pain and joint pain than non-smokers. Women in the study who smoked daily more than doubled their odds of having chronic pain.

A large study in Norway found that smokers and former smokers were more sensitive to pain than non-smokers. Smokers had the lowest tolerance to pain, while men and women who had never smoked had the highest pain tolerance.

In a recent study published in JAMA Neurology, Swedish researchers reported that continuing to smoke after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis significantly accelerates progression of the disease.

A Pained Life: When Habits Hurt

By Carol Levy, Columnist

I am a creature of habits, some of them bad. Not the “I can't stop eating chocolate”  kind of bad,  but bad in that I don’t always follow my own advice.

For example, I have a bad neck and as a result lifting something heavy often leaves me with worse neck pain. Every time I lift something heavy, I hesitate and think, “You need to put on the neck brace first. You really need to do that.”

Then I get annoyed and tell myself putting on the neck brace would be too much trouble.

The fact that I leave the brace out on the dresser and it is easily accessible makes no difference. My neck is held together with clamps and screws. How can a neck held together with a bunch of metal not be able to pick up anything, no matter what it is?

The fallacy of that thought is proven each time I move something heavy. But I don't heed myself and I pick it up anyway. Bad habit #1.

Then comes bad habit #2. The neck brace is supposed to help hold up my neck. But even when I wear it, I fight it. A good example is what happens when I take out the trash

The containers are a little ways away from my apartment. I do not want to have to make a number of trips (there is always a minimum of 2 large bags and more often 3). At least one is filled with cat box litter and is always heavy. The extra weight turns me into a turtle. I automatically scrunch up my shoulders and lower my neck as I lift the bags, feeling that somehow makes me stronger.

It doesn't, of course. And once I am finished my neck hurts horribly and the pain exhausts me.

So why don't I learn my lesson? Why do I fight doing a really simple thing that will help me?

One reason is denial and the other is looking at the short term rather than the long. I have to make the decision to accept what I can and cannot do -- sometimes just out of sheer stubbornness -- if I want help myself and reduce the pain when and where I can.

It is a lesson so hard to learn because it comes out of an acceptance of our limitations. At the end of the day, it is not the physical things that I do or refuse to do that cause the pain. It is my refusal to accept. Then I’m not a turtle but an ostrich, keeping my head in the sand.

I wish they had a neck brace for that.

Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.” 

Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.