The Department of Rehabilitation Sciences of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and the Hong Kong Physiotherapy Association have jointly conducted a study on the health effects of using smartphones and portable electronic devices among Hong Kong people. Results showed that, out of the 1,049 people surveyed, 70% of adults and 30% of children and adolescents have reported musculoskeletal symptoms in different parts of the body in relation to the use of electronic devices.
In recent years, various kinds of consumer electronics have become increasingly popular in Hong Kong. It is not surprising that the sales of smartphones in Hong Kong are among the highest in the world and the habits of using electronic devices are changing rapidly. Smartphones have become an indispensable communication tool in our everyday life and many people keep their phones turned on around the clock. In addition, people are obsessed with playing electronic games which is a common phenomenon in public places such as on buses and MTR, and this is widely known as “bow head tribe.”
Spanned over three years, the joint study involving both adults and school children aimed at examining their time spent on using various IT products, the tasks performed and postures adopted in their daily use. The relationship between the use of electronic devices and the development of musculoskeletal symptoms is a major focus of this study. Participants were asked to report any related physical problems, such as neck pain, shoulder pain, and wrist and hand pain symptoms.
The first phase of the survey was conducted in 2011-2012 involving a total of 465 adults aged between 18 to 50 years old. 221 persons were full-time workers and 244 were college students, all. Among them, 90% were daily smartphone users, 74% used desktop computers, 61% laptop computers, and 35% used tablet computers. 70% of respondents reported having experienced neck pain, 65% had shoulder pain, 46% with wrist and finger pain. Results also revealed that most respondents used more than one types of electronic device and for quite a long time each day. Maintaining a prolonged static posture, coupled with lack of exercise, would significantly increase the risk of developing musculoskeletal symptoms in different parts of the body.
The second phase of the survey was conducted in 2013 on school children. Two primary schools and a secondary school, with a total of 582 students at the age of 10 to 15, have been invited to complete the survey. Among them, 309 were boys and 273 were girls; 383 were in primary five to six, and 199 were secondary one to three students. Results showed that 488 students (84%) were regular users of smartphones, even higher than the number of desktop computer users (76%). Moreover, 184 people (31.6%) used a tablet computer on a regular basis. Among the student respondents, 180 persons (30%) reported using smartphones for 1-4 hours every day while 161 persons (27.6%) reported musculoskeletal discomforts related to the use of electronic devices. Close to 80% (127 persons) reported neck pain, 30% (55 persons) had shoulder pain, and 51% (85 persons) had wrist and finger pain symptoms.
Although the prevalence rates are generally lower in school children than the adult group, they are only 10 to 15 year-old growing children. Compared to the results of a previous study conducted in 2009, children at the time used mainly handheld gaming devices such as PSP and NDS. In this 2013 study, smartphones and tablet computers have largely replaced those handheld gaming devices within a two-year period.
Students overly obsessed with electronic games may suffer from adverse health effects in the long run. If they become accustomed to poor postures such as forward head or “poking-chin” posture, a kyphotic back and rounded shoulders, these may become fixed postural habits that would be difficult to correct when they turn adults. Parents therefore need to pay more attention to their children’s postural habits and encourage them to do regular exercise, so as to ensure a healthy development of their bones and joints, as well as maintain a good cardiovascular fitness during their precious growth periods.
In addition, studies have shown that in some cases, due to excessive texting with mobile phones, inflammation of tendons and articular degeneration in the thumb joint and index fingers have been reported. The latest smartphones and tablet computers tend to involve the index finger or the thumb to perform the touch functions. Even though the physical actions are very light, frequent repetitive actions last for long hours could lead to excessive strains in the finger joints and the tendons. Members of the public may consult a physiotherapist to seek professional advice about proper posture when using desktop computers, smartphones and tablet computers. Physiotherapists can also teach the public how to perform appropriate stretching exercises in order to improve or prevent pain.
Appropriate and regular exercise can promote physical and mental health. Physiotherapists are experts on the structure of the human body system and pathological conditions. They are the ideal persons to promote, guide and prescribe exercises to members of the public, in order to achieve the specific goals of improving health and physical fitness.