Joint disease targets youth with prolonged mobile phone use

Kenya’s youth could be staring at a digital epidemic — literally!

The looming outbreak of osteoarthritis — a disease traditionally associated with the older generation — is suspected to be linked to their increasing addiction to smartphone use.

Osteoarthritis is the degeneration of joint cartilage and the underlying bone. It has traditionally been manifest from the middle age upwards. It causes joint pains and sometimes stiffness.

In Kenya however Dr Dennis Otwori of the National Spinal Injury Hospital (NSIH) in Nairobi, told the Saturday Nation the doctors are beginning to see osteoarthritis in much younger people.

This can be associated with prolonged use of smartphones in an awkward position and is known as the text neck syndrome.

Patients suffer from sore difficult to move necks especially when turning the head to the side.

The term text neck syndrome (TNS) was coined by chiropractor Dean Fishman in Florida, US, where the condition is more widespread, and is affecting millions in all walks of life.

According to a post on Dr Fishman’s Text Neck Institute website, the syndrome defines repeated stress injury on the body caused by excessive texting and overuse of handheld electronic devices.

“The term, and the health condition, is derived from the onset of cervical spinal degeneration resulting from the repeated stress of frequent forward head flexion while looking down at the screens of mobile devices and ‘texting’ for long periods of time.

“While ‘text neck’ is certainly a new medical term, the condition is impacting millions and is a growing critical global concern,” the post says.

In Kenya, the syndrome is increasingly being detected in M-Pesa agents, who spend long hours hunched over their cell phones and young school children who spend long hours on smartphones and play stations.

A case in point is Alice Njeri who has been working in an M-Pesa shop for the last six years.

The 34-year-old, who works in Kirigiti, Kiambu, is undergoing physiotherapy at the National Spinal Injury Hospital.

A brother who works in Nairobi referred her to the hospital after neck pain and severe headaches persisted, in spite of treatment at the local county hospital.

“I was in great pain, which even extended to the chest. I underwent various medical tests, including for typhoid, all of which produced negative results,” Njeri, who was on her third physiotherapy session at the NSIH told the Saturday Nation.

Njeri, a patient of Dr Otwori, is on physiotherapy and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which she says, she is responding well to.

“My doctor has advised me not to bend too much while using the mobile,” she says.

Previous cases of neck surgery at the spinal injury facility cannot be directly attributed to TNS, hence a study Dr Otwori is doing to provide hard evidence on the smartphone-TNS nexus.


Headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain and/or arm pain are some of the signs.

The anatomy of the neck consists of seven bones interspersed with discs, ligaments, tendons and muscles.

“It’s the straining of the neck anatomy by excessive texting and overuse of mobile handheld devices that is likely to be the cause of cervical spine disorders in young people,” Dr Otwori says.

The condition is more common than imagined, he says, alluding to widespread use of smartphones.

If you are travelling in a car, for instance, and a bus overtakes you, it is common to see heads facing down, their owners presumably glued to their smartphones.

With Easter holidays fast approaching, urban children, especially, will be more glued to their PlayStations, tablets, smartphones, name it.

“While using these gadgets is not bad in itself, how we use them is the problem,” the doctor cautions.

Bending forward completely so that the chin touches the chest, and staying in this position for at least three hours a day, causes neck muscle strain, Dr Otwori says.

Yet, clocking that amount of time on the mobile, he says, is not difficult, thanks to the notorious Nairobi traffic jams, which easily last two hours.


Add to this an hour at work and another two in the evening, and you have five hours hunched in an awkward position, Dr Otwori notes.

“In the next five-or-so years, we could face a mobile handheld device epidemic,” he warns. Osteoarthritis can develop within 10 years.

The good news is that the syndrome is preventable by simply holding the electronic device at eye level.

Second, taking short breaks from devices. Postural exercises entailing frequent stretching of the neck from side to side, forwards and backwards is another way.

However, Dr Otwori recommends visiting a doctor when neck pains persist.

Pains associated with numbness of the upper limbs could signal heart disease. This is especially when chest pains radiate to the neck and left shoulder.

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