“i” syndrome. What is it?

Texting on a qwerty keypad phone

Texting on a qwerty keypad phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everywhere you look, people are walking with their heads down and thumbs are busy using their ipad, ipod, iphone other similar devices. This is happening at work, school, home, in the car (as a passenger hopefully) and on the street. You would see people literally walk into a pole while using their devices. Many articles cite the potential health risks posed to our body from repetitive use of these new electronic devices. Most of them discuss one or two areas of concern. This article is to draw your attention to the overall health risk these devices pose from overuse. It seems that it affects the younger generation the most. I coin these collective health concerns as “i” syndrome.

“i” syndrome consists of the following symptoms:

1) pain in the neck / upper back (Text Neck): Neck and shoulder pain related to texting or use of smart phones is caused by the poor posture of prolonged flexion of the neck. The symptoms may include the following:

  • neck and upper back/shoulder pain initially
  • symptoms may progress to include numbness and tingling in the arms/fingers due to compression of the nerves around the neck area.

Judith Gold, an ergonomics researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia, presented a preliminary research on approximately 140 college students on the relationship between texting and repetitive strain injuries. The study found a correlation between the amount time a student spent texting and how severe their neck and shoulder pain was[1]

2) symptoms in the thumbs/wrists: This is popularly termed “blackberry thumb” or “teen texting tendonitis”.  Our thumb is designed for pinching and gripping things. They simply weren’t designed for repetitive texting at a speed of 72 letters per minute. It is estimated that teenagers sending and receiving an average of 80 text messages each day may be vulnerable to repetitive stress injuries of the thumb[2]. It has also been documented that over 38% of the general population suffer from sore wrists and thumbs from texting[3].

  • pain and numbness at the base of the thumbs or fingers or joints of the hand
  • pain in elbow
  • tired, achy fingers and cramping
  • decrease joint mobility

3) decrease in communication skills (verbal and writing): While the advance of telecommunication technologies allow us to keep in touch with each other easily. Many employers are now finding that the biggest challenge among college graduates is an inability to speak and write effectively.

  • 64% of the teens inadvertently use improper grammar or punctuation, carrying over texting habits to other forms of writing[4]
  • 25% have used emoticons in their school writing; 38% have used text shortcuts such as “LOL” meaning “laugh out loud”.  And these ‘shortcuts’ are showing up on the job!

4) Sleep problems: Many teenagers and young adults text or surf the internet at bedtimes. A pilot study in 2010 showed that texting, emailing and other electronic devices are causing an epidemic of sleep deprivation among high school and college students[5]. We know how important sleep is. Lack of sleep affects our overall health in many ways including our immune system. The problem is not only sleep deprivation, but includes mood, behaviour and cognitive problems during the day. The study showed the following:

  • 77.5% of participants of the study had persistent problems falling asleep.
  • On average, a participant sent 33.5 emails or texts per night during sleeping hours
  • Among the adolescent participants, the older they were, the more time they spent with their electronic devices at bedtime.

5) Compulsive texting: We see people who text at all hours and in all places. Some people seem to have developed behaviour that is similar to addiction. A study in 2010 by Paul Atchley,   an associate professor of psychology at Kansan University, that surveyed 400 college students ages 18-30 showed texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk driving[6]. The study found that 95 % of the students were likely to either initiate or respond to a text message while driving. The surprising find from the study indicates the people who do text and drive are generally aware of how risky the behavior is, yet they do it anyway. Atchley compared their mindset to those who are addicted to nicotine. Some scientists have even compared it to driving under the influence.

6) Eye strain (or “i” strain): There are debates over what type of reading screen is better: LCD or e-lnk. However, “it’s a variety of other factors that can cause physical fatigue.” said Dr. Travis Meredith, chair of the ophthalmology department at the University of North Carolina. The ergonomics of reading screens and the lack of blinking when we stare at them play a big role in eye fatigue.[7]

E Ink has a very low contrast ratio. Although it can offer an excellent reading experience in bright sunlight, the screens can become uncomfortable to use in dark settings because of the lack of contrast and backlighting on the screen.

Apple’s latest IPS LCD screens include extremely wide viewing angles, but the reflective glass on the screen could be a hindrance in brightly lit situations. At the of the day, it depends on your reading need and how comfortable you feel.

Advise: 20/20/20 role: every 20 minutes look 20 feet away for 20 seconds to allow your eyes to refocus.

Consider the following facts about texting

  • 1/3 of teens send more than 100 text messages daily
  • Of the 83% of American adults who own cell phones, roughly 73% of them send text messages and about 31% of them prefer texting to actually talking on the phone.[8]
  • Average texting speed of a 14 year old girl is 72 letters per minutes.
  • The number of text messages sent on cell phones has more than doubled from 48 billion in December 2007 to 110 billion in December 2008[9]
  • 18 to 24 year olds average 110 text messages per day[10]


  1. http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/news/20091112/texting-can-be-a-pain-in-the-neck-shoulders/
  2. http://solomonsseal.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/healing-texting-thumb-and-repetitive-stress-injuries-rsi-with-solomon%E2%80%99s-seal/
  3. http://www.diversifiedhealth.ca/sports-therapy/thumb-pain-text-message-injuries-are-increasing-says-a-vancouver-island-health-clinic/
  4. http://priscilla-tovey.suite101.com/communication-skills-lacking-in-college-grads–is-texting-to-bla-a257133
  5. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/206546.php
  6. http://www.kansan.com/news/2010/apr/23/texting-and-social-skills/
  7. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/do-e-readers-cause-eye-strain/
  8. http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Cell-Phone-Texting-2011.aspx
  9. http://hothardware.com/News/US-Texting-Rate-More-Than-Doubles-In-A-Year-My-Thumz-Hrt/
  10. http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media/Files/Reports/2010/PIP-Teens-and-Mobile-2010.pdf
  11. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/do-e-readers-cause-eye-strain/


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1 Response to “i” syndrome. What is it?

  1. Suzanne says:

    These new ways of social networking has really boomed in the last decade, and has no doubt, become quite a spreading addiction in our society. Even I will admit my husband and I often lie in bed playing on our own separate phones, completely disconnected from each other. Dr. Fung you bring a very good perspective on this addiction by covering the physiological consequences. I only hope that parents will read your article and will put their foot down, take action, and help to reduce the time that their children/youths spend in front of a screen. And may I just add that in addition to the physiological, there is a whole flood of emotional & mental consequences to social networking overuse. Some include: stress, bullying, gossip, time consumption and lack of management, and much more. Great article.

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