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Heads Up! Smartphone Use Linked to Occipital Neuralgia

Next time you find yourself walking along a bustling city street, take a moment to look around at the other pedestrians, and sneak a peek at the motorists waiting for the light to change. You will see, perhaps unsurprisingly, a large number of heads tilted down with faces glowing from the light of their smartphones.

An ambling public mindlessly isolated in a personal digital companion might have made a fine sci-fi plot just a decade ago. Unfortunately, this is now our reality. We have become so willfully and constantly distracted. And the dangers of this distraction are well-studied, with warnings issued. Unfortunately, what is less publicized is the damage we are unwittingly administering on our own necks.

The neurological condition occipital neuralgia is on the rise. If this condition’s name sounds frightening to you, just wait, it gets worse.

Smartphones are now ubiquitous in modern life, filling all those awkward moments we’d normally be waiting in public. Before the advent of these devices, you might find yourself scanning your surroundings while you wait, looking for stimulation or letting your brain wander. Now, you dig into your pocket and nervously check your emails, texts, Twitter, Tik Tok, or any other trending digital pacifier.

The act of waiting in public no longer requires engaging with the world around you. Those quiet moments waiting for a table at a restaurant, for the doctor, or mechanic to call your name when reflection or interaction were commonplace are now replaced with the comforting glow of our dopamine-dripping data-driven paradise. But understanding the damage caused by simply tilting your head down should hopefully make you rethink reaching for your phone.

What is occipital neuralgia?

The greater- and lesser-occipital nerves weave through the cervical spine, also known as your neck. The nerves continue across the top of the skull and branch across the scalp, top of the head and over the ears. Occipital neuralgia occurs when the occipital nerves become exposed from the protection of the cervical spine.

The exposed occipital nerves can then easily become irritated. This results in symptoms like a constant debilitating headache, upper neck pain, even a pain that spans from the back of the head, over the scalp, across the brow and behind the eyes.

There are many causes for this condition: Osteoporosis, cancer, and other degenerative diseases. But over the past decade, smartphones have become linked to triggering this condition as well.

How does smartphone use link to occipital neuralgia?

Think of your head like a bowling ball and your neck as a plastic cup. When the bowling ball sits atop the plastic cup, the entire force of the ball is evenly distributed around the circumference of the cup. The cup might not be the strongest pedestal for that heavy bowling ball, but since the weight is distributed, the cup is able to hold the weight without much strain.

Now, imagine if you began tilting the ball to one edge of the plastic cup. Putting so much force on only one side would begin to stress the cup considerably.

Your neck may seem stronger than a plastic cup, but the neck intends to distribute the head’s weight evenly, upright on your spine. If you tilt your head down, you might not even realize the strain you’re placing on your neck, and those sensitive nerves within.

Looking down to tie your shoes or pick up a lucky penny may not seem too dangerous, and given the quick interval, you’ll be safe picking up a couple pennies each day. But if you find yourself looking down at your phone for long stretches of time, you may be in for a world of hurt.

Americans, on average, check their phones over 150 times every day. And DailyMail reports that the average European uses their phones for a total of three hours and 16 minutes each day! Worse still, Gallup notes that this increase in use skews young, meaning the latest generation is most at risk for developing occipital neuralgia. A demographic previously spared from suffering at the hands of this disorder.

What can be done to relieve occipital neuralgia?

While there is no direct cure for occipital neuralgia, there are a number of options for sufferers, some more invasive than others. Depending on your case, you may find relief with over-the-counter aspirin. But some people might need something a little stronger.

Your doctor might decide that injections of steroids and numbing agents can offer swift and lasting relief. The fact remains, that the more you tilt your head down to stare at your smartphone, the more you will create excessive pressure on your occipital nerves.


Smartphones aren’t going away. The genie isn’t going back into its bottle. We humans must now learn to adapt to using this magical and often addicting technology. One that we rarely keep more than a few feet away all day, every day.

Human evolution takes hundreds of thousands of years. Our bodies are not immediately suited for this new trend of continuously tilting our heads down during every lull in daily life. Consider being more litigious when using your smartphone in public. It’ll not only benefit you socially by keeping you aware and available for interaction, it may also save you from a quite literal pain in the neck!

Published inScience & Technology