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Avoiding the 'iHunch'.

Levels of reported pain in the upper back or neck are increasing as people spend more and more time bending over small electronic devices. One physiotherapist offers some practical advice.

Statistically, one in six adults in New Zealand, or 10 to 20 per cent of the population, are, at any given time, likely to be suffering from acute pain in the upper back or neck, or from headaches arising from the neck. (1)

Retired Dunedin physiotherapist Steve August believes nurses and other health professionals are particularly prone to this kind of pain, due to the amount of bending they do. He quotes one study which found that 80 per cent of surgeons experience back or neck pain on a regular basis. (2)

"On top of this normal bending over"' patients in beds or chairs, all of us are now bending over laptops, tablets and smartphones, both at work and out of work. This is creating a new problem which I call the 'iHunch'."

August believes the iHunch (similar to a dowager's hump in the elderly, usually associated with osteoporosis) can result in permanent curvature of the spine and is the underlying problem of most neck and upper back issues and up to 50 per cent of headaches.

"When we spend so much of our lives bending forwards--and some studies report people spending more time on laptops and other devices than they do sleeping (3)--there's a musculoskeletal price to pay. Our spines evolved to suit us walking upright, looking around for food and danger. When you bend over small electronic devices where the keyboard cannot be separated from the screen, then your spine gets into a fixed flexed position. You cannot set these devices up in an ergonomically safe way.

"You hear of primary schools being proud that they now provide their pupils with iPads from a very early age but there is little discussion about what the long-term health consequences of using these devices will be, particularly to the upper thoracic spine.

"Added to this problem is the fact we are not as active as we used to be. The average New Zealander in their 50s is probably now fitter than the average person in their 20s today. New Zealand also now comes third in the world for levels of obesity." (4)

Nurses, August says, are not that good at looking after themselves because their focus is primarily on looking after other people. Female nurses also suffer from even worse low back problems due to the amount of lifting they do. However, they should also be aware of the growing incidence of neck and upper back problems, both in themselves and in their patients.

Once someone has an initial hunch from leaning over too much, lifting their head up straight becomes harder and leads to overuse of the muscles at the back of the head and neck, causing their chins to stick out, August says. Straining against the hunch will lead to torn muscle fibres in the neck and scar tissue resulting from repairing this strain.

Twenty years ago, August dreamed up the idea of using a tightly packed wheat bag as a fulcrum to help those with upper back and neck pain loosen their spines. Three years ago, this idea evolved into the Backpod[R], a tool August developed to help release the "frozen hinges" of the spine which cause the growing hunch. He sees this as part of a package of methods people should use to keep their spines healthy.

Using a range of methods

"I recommend strengthening exercises, posture work, massage and stretching the spine using a form of leverage like the Backpod to stretch the tough collagen. One method on its own will never be enough to fix this problem. People should also move regularly when using electronic devices and laptops."

August describes the Backpod as a "high-tech cushioned fulcrum" which uses a person's own body weight to stretch out the tough, shortened collagen holding a hunched upper back in its stoop. He recommends health professionals lie back on the Backpod every day for several minutes to stretch out the joints and muscles in the reverse direction from how they've been used all day bending over patients. Once the spine has been freed up, the Backpod can be used less often to maintain flexibility.

"Using the Backpod is a minimalist form of exercise but I know from experience it makes a real difference. It's not rocket science--just common sense."

Manufactured in Christchurch, the Backpod is also attracting interest in Europe where it has won German Design Council and Red Dot international design awards--one of only a handful of New Zealand products to ever win these. "New Zealand is a great country in which to develop practical health innovations that are then applicable to huge numbers overseas," he said.

August believes a poor hunching posture is associated with poor self-esteem. "People who are hunched project a cringing message and do not get listened to as well as those who stand up straight. So there are distinct psychological benefits to learning better posture techniques." (5)

August has developed a free website to help people improve their posture and care for their The Backpod is available at most pharmacies.

By co-editor Anne Manchester


(1) Fejer, R., Kyvik, K.O. & Hartvigsen, J. (2006) The prevalence of neck pain in the world population: a systematic critical review of the literature; European Spine Journal; 15: 6, pp834-848.

(2) Soueid, A., Oudit, D., Thiagarajah, S. & Laitung, G. (2010) The pain of surgery: pain experienced by surgeons while operating. International Journal of Surgery. Retrieved 13/04/14.

(3) Mail Online (2015) Average person now spends more time on their phone and laptop than SLEEPING, study claims, health/article-2989952/How-technology-taking-lives-spend-time-phones-laptops-SLEEPING.html. Retrieved 08/06/15.

(4) Shuttleworth, K. (2015) New Zealand battles obesity epidemic as third fattest country in the world, feb/19/new-zealand-battles-obesity-epidemic-as-third-fattest-country-in-the-world. Retrieved 08/06/15.

(5) Cuddy, A. (2012) Your body language shapes who you are. are?language=en. Retrieved 03/14/15.
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Title Annotation:health and safety; acute pain in the upper back or neck due to bending too much over small electronic devices
Author:Manchester, Anne
Publication:Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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