COMMENT

While the dangers of distracted driving are obvious and well-studied, distracted walking sounds much less serious. Since the introduction of smartphones - walking around while staring at a phone screen has become more commonplace and now new research shows a dramatic correlation between smartphone use and a rise in serious head and neck injuries.

Once a tool used to call and speak to people, mobile phones today have become an indispensable device which for many of us has replaced books, maps, diaries and even televisions. These tiny supercomputers may seem like a source of knowledge and entertainment, but our dependence on smartphones has made them difficult to put down, even when we are supposed to be doing other things.

Previous research has found that constant smartphone use can lead to pain and long-term damage in our backs. Caused by an increase in spinal pressure created from sitting for long periods with a forward-tilted head, poor phone posture is one example of how our smartphones can hurt us. Another smartphone pain issue is known as "texting thumb", where the ongoing tiny motions from texting with two thumbs can lead to the sheath of the tendon becoming inflamed resulting in long term thumb and wrist pain.

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Now new research has looked more closely into hospitalisations caused by mobile phones and found that in addition to the spine and thumb pain, they are also responsible for more severe head and neck injuries.

Publishing in the journal JAMA, researchers collected data from 100 US hospitals spanning the years 1998 to 2017 where mobile phones were recorded as the reason for the injury. Extrapolating out they estimated that over the 20-year period 76,000 US patients were treated for mobile phone-related head and neck injuries serious enough that they warranted a trip to the emergency room. With over 90 per cent smartphone ownership in New Zealand today, this would correlate to more than 1000 phone injuries here.

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The data showed a dramatic spike in the number of mobile injuries from the year 2007 onwards. This was the year that the iPhone was introduced and when the population moved from more basic mobile phones to larger, more immersive smartphone devices.

The injuries were split evenly into two categories, those caused by a direct mechanical trauma and those caused by association, such as tripping over while trying to walk and text.

Most of the mobile-related injuries occurred in those aged between 13-29, with tripping because of walking while texting being the biggest causes of injury in this age group. The injuries ranged from superficial facial cuts and bruises through to sprained limbs, fractures, concussion and even internal organ injuries.

Injuries to those aged 13 and under were more mechanical, such as breaking their nose by dropping their smartphone on their face when trying to use it lying down, or physically fighting over a phone with a sibling.

While we may see a lot of waking and texting on the street, only 17 per cent of smartphone injuries were recorded as occurring outside, whilst a whopping 40 per cent of the injuries happened at home.

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With the study only using recorded hospitalisations for head and neck injuries as their source, there are likely to be tens of thousands of other phone-related injuries that occurred where a hospital visit wasn't deemed necessary.

We all recognise that texting and walking isn't a good idea, yet most of us admit to doing it ourselves hoping our multi-tasking skills are up to scratch. With the evidence clearly showing this as a bad idea, next time you want to check your messages while walking, protect your face and keep your phone in your pocket instead.