Heads Up! Smartphone Use Linked to Occipital Neuralgia

By: Chaz Wilke - Staff Writer
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Next time you find yourself walking around a bustling urban street, take a moment and look around at your fellow pedestrians and sneak a peek at the motorists waiting for their light to change. You will see, perhaps unsurprisingly, a large number of people, heads tilted down with their faces bathed in the faint glow emitted from their smartphones.

It wasn’t so long ago that we, collectively, became unnerved by our fellow citizens casually engaging in cellphone calls with little consideration for those within earshot. But now, it seems the average person goes completely mute while captivated by their smartphones in public.

An ambling public mindlessly isolated in a personal digital companion might have made a fine a sci-fi movie plotline from just a decade ago. Unfortunately, this is the reality we now inhabit. We have become willfully and constantly distracted. And the dangers of this distraction have been well studied and the warnings issued. But what is less publicized is the damage we are unwittingly administering on our own necks.

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The neurological condition occipital neuralgia is on the rise. If this condition’s name sounds frightening to you, just wait, it gets worse.

Smartphones have become ubiquitous in modern life, filling all those awkward moments we’d normally be waiting in public. Before the advent of these devices you might find yourself scanning your surroundings while you wait, looking for stimulation or letting your brain wander, now you dig into your pocket and nervously check your emails, texts, Facebook, and if all else fails to distract for long enough you can always slyly boot up a quick round of Fruit Ninja.

No longer is the act of waiting a chance to engage with the world around you. Those quiet moments you find while waiting for your table at a restaurant, or for the doctor, or mechanic to call your name, are now accompanied with a tilted head, lowered to meet the comforting glow of your own data-driven paradise. But the damage a simple head tilt can cause on your body over the long term may make you rethink reaching for your phone.

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What is occipital neuralgia?

The greater and lesser occipital nerves weave through the cervical spine, more commonly known as the neck. The nerves continue across the top of the skull and branch across the scalp, top of the head and over the ears. Occipital neuralgia occurs when the occipital nerves become exposed from the protection of the cervical spine.

The exposed occipital nerves can become irritated causing a burning head pain. Think of a constant debilitating headache that can include upper neck pain, and pain that spans from back of the head, over the scalp, across to the brow and behind the eyes.

There are many causes for this condition. Osteoporosis, cancer, and other degenerative diseases can onset occipital neuralgia. And over the past decade, smartphones are now linked to triggering this condition as well.

How does smartphone use link to occipital neuralgia?

Think of your head like a bowling ball and your neck as a plastic cup. When the bowling ball sits atop the plastic cup, the entire force of the ball is evenly distributed around the circumference of the cup. The cup might not be the strongest pedestal for that heavy bowling ball, but since the weight is distributed, the cup is able to hold the weight without much difficulty.

Now imagine if you began tilting the ball to one edge of the plastic cup. Putting so much force on only one portion of the cup begins to stress that side, a crease begins along the side burdened with the full weight of the ball.

Your neck may seem stronger than a plastic cup, but the intention is for the neck to evenly distribute the force that your head places on your spine. If you tilt your head down, you may not even realize the additional force placed on your neck and the sensitive nerves within.

In a recent issue of the bi-yearly publication Surgical Technology International, Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, Chief of Spine Surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine included (PDF) the following diagram in his Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head:

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Source: SURGICAL TECHNOLOGY INTERNATIONAL XXV

Looking down to tie your shoes or pick up a lucky penny may not seem too dangerous, and given the quick interval of tilting your head, you’ll be safe picking up a couple pennies each day. But if you find yourself looking down at your phone as often as the average user might, you may be in for a world of hurt.

Americans, on average, check their phones over 150 times each day. The intervals are also shocking. DailyMail reports that the average European uses their phones for a total of three hours and sixteen minutes each day! And Gallup notes that this increase in use skews young, meaning the latest generation is most at risk for occipital neuralgia.

So while we had previously viewed this painful nerve disorder as something that only affects the infirmed or elderly, we are now seeing a new group rising in the percentages of the afflicted: young smartphone users.

Look back up at that chart. Notice how a neutral head position only puts 10-12 pounds of force on your neck and the delicate nerves that your spinal column protects. And be honest as you look at the tilt degree that you think is average for you while using your phone. Are you putting six times the force on your occipital nerves for hours each day?

Ever wondered where those headaches are coming from?

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What can be done to relieve occipital neuralgia?

While there is no direct cure for occipital neuralgia, there are a number of options for sufferers of the painful nerve disorder. Some options are more invasive than others. Depending on your case, you may find relief with painkillers as simple as an over the counter aspirin. Some people might need something a little stronger.

Your doctor might decide that injections comprised of steroids and numbing agents can offer swift and lasting relief for sufferers of occipital neuralgia. You may find relief with one series of injections or it may take multiple rounds. The fact remains, that the more you tilt your head down to stare at your smartphone, the more you will suffer from excessive force pressing on your occipital nerves.

Takeaway

Smartphones aren’t going away. That genie isn’t going back in its bottle. We humans must now learn to adapt to using this magical and often addicting technology that we rarely keep more than a few feet away all day, every day.

Human evolution takes hundreds of thousands of years. Our bodies are not immediately suited for this new trend of consistently tilting our heads down during every boring lull in daily life. Consider being more litigious when using your smartphone in public. It will not only benefit you socially by keeping you more aware of your surroundings and available for interaction, it may also save you from a quite literal pain in the neck.