Amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is certain: COVID-19 has changed the way we work and live. As more people are working and spending more time at home, many are also increasing their screen time.

While technology has opened up new ways for people to connect, work, and play, health experts warn that the extra hours spent sitting and hunching over electronic devices can take a significant physical toll on the body.

Postural disorders

Mr Karthikeyan Ganeshan, Senior Physiotherapist, Outram Community Hospital, pointed out that the human body is not designed for long hours of sitting. Spending too much time in front of a screen would mean less time spent on physical activities, resulting in prolonged poor posture.

“Sustained poor sitting posture can lead to rounded shoulders, exaggerated forward rounding of the back (also known as kyphotic spine), forward head posture, and tight hamstring and gluteal (buttock) muscles. If untreated, these can lead to chronic back and neck pain,” Mr Karthikeyan added.

<<Senior Physiotherapist Karthikeyan Ganeshan has seen young patients experience debilitating pain from musculoskeletal conditions caused by poor posture.>>

In severe cases, one’s nerves may also be affected. This can cause symptoms, such as numbness and pinprick sensation in the legs and arms, as well as irreversible postural changes.

Young people affected

Posture-related disorders may not be life-threatening, but they can affect one’s quality of life. Mr Karthikeyan has seen young patients experience debilitating pain from long-standing musculoskeletal conditions.

He recounted his experience with a patient, who is an IT professional in her 20s. She had severe pain in her neck that radiated to her right arm. The pain worsened at the end of each day. She felt depressed and thought of quitting her job.

Further assessment revealed the cause to be poor ergonomics at her workstation. After modifying her workstation and practising physiotherapy techniques, such as regular stretching and strengthening exercises, the patient was able to counterbalance the effects of poor posture.

Harmful swiping

While all forms of excessive screen time are unhealthy, Mr Karthikeyan said that excessive mobile phone use, which has become increasingly popular among seniors to stave off boredom and loneliness, may lead to worse health effects compared to spending time on the computer or watching television.

“We carry our mobile phones with us everywhere, and the tendency is to unconsciously spend far too much time on it. It is also very difficult to maintain good posture while using mobile phones,” he said.

Repetitive motions from constant text messaging and refreshing social media pages can increase one’s risk of developing a condition called tendonitis, which occurs when the tendons — thick, flexible cords of tissue that attach muscle to bone — become inflamed, especially in the fingers or wrist. For example, excessive use of cell phones can cause thumb strain.

A recent study has also shown an increase in patients suffering from cubital tunnel syndrome — numbness in the fingers along the arm’s major nerve called the ulnar nerve — due to excessive use of mobile phones. This has been nicknamed the “cell phone elbow” as the strain is a result of the elbow being held in flexion for prolonged periods of time.

Although tendonitis is traditionally seen in people whose work and hobbies involve repetitive movements over time, Dr Bryan Wang, Consultant, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Changi General Hospital, said it may also occur with excessive mobile device use.

“Increased reliance on mobile devices can lead to persistent inflammation of the tendons, when there is no opportunity for proper rest and recovery,” he said.

The elderly and those with existing medical conditions, such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, are at a higher risk of developing this painful condition.


<<Increasing reliance on mobile devices can lead to persistent inflammation of the tendons, said Dr Bryan Wang.>>

Dr Wang said affected individuals may experience pain that is aggravated by movement, swelling, and warmth or redness over the affected areas. Symptoms may last from a few days to weeks or even months.

The symptoms often affect daily activities, and when complications such as tendon ruptures or tears occur in more severe cases, patients may require surgery.

While most symptoms related to tendonitis will resolve with rest and non-surgical treatments, it is important to seek medical attention if the pain persists, suddenly worsens, or when it affects joint mobility.

Get up and move

For those working from home or whose work involves spending long hours in front of a screen, here are some strategies to protect your posture and health:

1 Invest in an ergonomic workstation set-up.

2 Take short, frequent breaks. For example, walk to the kitchen or pantry to get a drink, and place the printer away from the work desk.

3 Do simple neck and back stretches regularly.

4 Engage in physical activities for at least 30 minutes every day.

5 Strengthening the muscles around the tendon can help prevent tendonitis from recurring. A trained professional, such as physiotherapist, can help plan a personalised programme.