If you’re experiencing back, shoulder, or hip pain, consider cutting how much time you spend scrolling through social media on your phone or working from bed on your laptop. These modern-day habits create stress levels that impact whole-body health. Here, practical advice for relieving pain by cutting screen time.
People with back, shoulder, or hip pain often think that surgery is the best answer to all kinds of chronic pain conditions (thanks to medical articles and surgeon suggestions).
People are led to believe they need a surgeon to cut bone, ligament, tendon, or muscle to get relief from the pain.
This comes from the medical and orthopedic model of chronic pain, which promotes the idea that pain is the result of malformed or permanently damaged body parts.
But this orthopedic model ignores the regenerative capacities of the body. And it ignores an even bigger issue—scientific research consistently shows that "damaged" or "deformed" structures that allegedly cause pain are, wait for it, NOT related to pain.
The upshot is that cutting into your body to remove pieces, shave them down, or reshape them to address chronic pain is NOT backed by science. And over decades, the data consistently show that using surgery to fix chronic pain is a big, oversold crapshoot.
The reality is that aches and pains are driven by a combination of factors, including muscle weakness, muscle inflexibility, poor awareness of and connection to body parts, stress, emotional well-being, relationships, and more.
See also: Avoid Orthopedic Surgery for Joint Pain
So if you shouldn't cut bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles, what should you do to relieve pain?
I'm going to share two clear strategies that will relieve pain and improve your daily comfort levels. These chronic-pain-relief strategies apply to back pain, hip pain, and shoulder pain. And they apply to just about any other kind of joint pain you may experience.
There are multiple aspects of screen time that make your body hurt.
First is the static position you're in for hours at a time. Human beings used to be animals who walked, crouched, squatted, ran, climbed, danced, and wrestled. A variety of movements kept our muscles and joints working.
Then came screens.
And humans became animals who sat. And sat. And sat.
image source: hominipost.com
We have, for the most part, become animals that focus their eyes on objects six inches to six feet away from our faces. Our muscles have atrophied. Our internal sense of our own bodies has atrophied. And our bodies have stopped moving well.
We have turned into stooped creatures who have trouble breathing, walking, squatting, running, climbing, dancing, and wrestling.
And our bodies have stopped feeling well. To combat this, the simplest thing we can do is reduce the amount of time we spend in front of screens. Finding things to do that don’t involve screens naturally leads to more motion for the body.
However, reducing the amount of time we spend on screens is no easy feat (but we’ll discuss some concrete strategies later in this article).
Now our screens are embedded with technology that keeps us glued to them. With social media – which demands our attention with unrelenting intensity – we have become not just physically unwell, but also mentally and emotionally unwell.
Which brings us to item No. 2.
I'm not just talking about auditory noise. I'm talking about social media, newspapers, podcasts, gossip mags, and more. I'm talking about all the avenues that fill your brain with titillating tidbits, fearful figures, and angering anecdotes.
Drowning in content to stay abreast of the latest events creates a constant level of stress that keeps your entire body tense. It makes it difficult for you to notice and react to your body’s signals to take care of yourself.
News headlines, viral videos, and podcasts are designed to suck you in. They're designed to keep your attention. They're designed to make you feel like if you consume a little more, you'll be a little better prepared for the bad stuff to come.
The reality is that sitting on your butt, feeling scared, agitated, anxious, attacked, and alone turns your body into a chemical stew of weakness and pain.
Minimizing digital distractions can go a long way in maintaining mind-body balance. Image source : Pixabay.
Think about your body when you are tense, scared, fearful, anxious. Which muscles contract? Which muscles stiffen?
If you're like 99 percent of all humans in history, your upper shoulder and neck muscles, abs, chest muscles, inner thighs, hip flexors, calves, palms, wrists, and the bottoms of your feet tense up when you’re stressed.
You're ready for fight or flight.
Many people live in this state for more than half the day. Between family, work, and a constant stream of bad news, it's easy to be stressed out for most of your waking hours.
Even if you're in this stressed state for two hours a day, it'll have an effect on your well-being.
If you're in this state for four hours a day, it'll have more of an effect on your pain levels. And if you're in this state for half the day or more, it will have huge cumulative effects on your brain and body.
Being in a consistently stressed out state disturbs your muscles. It disturbs your heart. It disturbs your mind. It disturbs your sleep. It disturbs everything.
And as you start to hurt more and more, you get caught in a cycle of distraction and disturbance, often looking for answers on the internet, and landing on articles that make you think you have an incurably bad disease or condition and need drastic interventions, like pills, surgery, and injections.
Oh, yes, I've been there. And I still catch myself doing it from time to time.
See also: Don’t get caught in RIIPS
Before you fall down that path and start trying to cut up your body to fix things, think about this alternative: Your body needs time to recover from constant stress. It cannot heal and thrive unless you cut out the noise.
Cut out the noise, and your body can heal and thrive.
As someone who has long been "type A," super productive, driven, and always busy, I know this can sound silly. And I know fellow high performers will be inclined to dismiss the advice in this article. But I strongly invite (and implore!) you to give some of this a chance.
The results will take a little bit of time to show up, but they will show up.
Right now you might be saying to yourself, But I've tried to cut down on screen time or I've tried to cut down on noise.
And you may have failed miserably at it all. You might still find yourself looking at your screen, reading the news, and getting agitated at 11 p.m., when you probably should be asleep. (Again, I'm writing from experience!)
So let me give you two practical steps you can take to cut out screen time and noise.
You need to fight this infernal fire with fire. You need to fight with an enormous, ruthless ball of fire to reclaim your movement time and attention.
Your iPhone has something called Screen Time to help you manage your device usage. It's a very weak tool. It's too easy to get around its limitations, and its little warnings will do almost nothing to curb real internet and phone addiction. It’s not good enough.
On your Windows or MacOS computer, ColdTurkey Blocker is an incredible app for setting strict usage limits of specific apps, websites, and even of your computer itself.
Another easy win is to uninstall all social media apps from your phone. This cuts down on mindless time-sucking scrolling.
The goal is to remove willpower from the equation. Left to my own willpower and conscious control, I can always find a reason to disobey my intended screen time limits. There’s always some reason that I “need” to be on the screen.
By setting limits that automatically kick in, I’m far more likely to obey. And though I might temporarily feel disappointed that I’m not getting screen time, I end up feeling calmer and healthier in the long run.
When my phone and computer are locked, I can’t use them to check email, read the news, listen to music, watch videos, and more.
Using screens before bed to do research or send emails creates agitating dreams. And the hunched position I'm in on the computer seems to lock up my neck, shoulder, and arm muscles through the night.
I wake up sore and groggy. It's like a computer hangover (complete with feelings of regret). I don’t like waking up with hangovers of any kind. So when I want to feel my best, I set strong screen time limits.
This is how I setup my screen time limits.
I currently use an Android phone. I set a daily limit of 15 minutes of web browser time using Android’s native Digial Well-Being options. I also use AppBlock to lock me out of my text messages, email, and browser between 9 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.
On my computer, I use ColdTurkey Blocker to limit my use of specific websites, and even the computer at certain times of day. I use it to block out distractions that have a strong tendency to pull me off of my work tasks. And, on a regular basis, ColdTurkey locks me out of internet browsing from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. That means when the house is quiet, I can’t give in to the temptation to wander around the internet looking for that perfect jacket or surfboard (that doesn’t exist).
In addition, I have NO social media apps installed on my phone, and I don't have the email app within easy sight or reach. I don't even allow my work email to update unless I manually ask for it. This keeps me away from compulsive email checking.
I've found that these limits and enforced periods of computer- and phone-free time have a huge impact. Having at least an hour without technology before bed means I sleep deeper, have calmer dreams, and wake up feeling refreshed—which is all connected to pain relief.
You, of course, may need to adjust things to practically fit your life and your job, but be wary of the justifications you come up with to be loose with your restrictions.
If you find yourself saying, Oh, but what if I need to check for an important email at 11 p.m.?!, your email addiction is manipulating you, or your life is way too busy.
I've personally found it's best to be too restrictive for a while, in order to see the nature of my own addictions. The period of extra restrictiveness can help break the grip screens have on your mind and body.
If you find that the level of restrictiveness becomes truly problematic for the flow of your life, you can always loosen up your restrictions (after carefully weighing the cost to your mental and physical health).
Here's some more detailed reasoning on the technology blocks I set for myself.
I find texting a frustrating means of communication.
A normal human conversation involves two people exchanging ideas in real time. One says something. The other responds.
With text messages, the long periods of waiting and wondering if a message has been seen and wondering how it's being received create a lot of stress in my brain. I will often assume the worst of silence.
Even when all rational thought points in a benign direction, I will assume someone hates me, is ignoring me, or that the delay in reply will result in some kind of massively negative physical or relational catastrophe.
I could spend months, or years, trying to correct this mental circuitry. Or I could just implement a daily time block on text messages and have some peace and quiet at night so I can sleep better. Better sleep helps me stay calmer and allows my body time to heal from workouts, grow muscle, and restore whatever needs restoring.
I like to learn. I like to read. The internet gives me unfettered access to more information than I can soak up. Ever. So whenever there's something I want to learn about, I often get sucked deep into information rabbit holes.
And I know I'm not the only one.
I also find that without limits, I will visit specific news and blog sites that make me feel smart, but that also ultimately keep me feeling fearful and stressed out.
News, finance, and environmentally focused content sites are titillating and satisfying in some way, but they do not bestow a sense of peace and calm.
More fear and stress make my body (and yours) feel tense and cruddy.
I have met people who claim never to be caught in internet rabbit holes. If that's you, this block may not be necessary (but you are probably a unicorn). If you even suspect you have a problem with internet rabbit holes, you should experiment with blocking internet access.
I used to have a major addiction to, or compulsion problem with, email. I used to check it incessantly all day. I'd check it when I woke up. I'd check it before bed.
One morning I realized that every time I opened my email, I did so with a feeling of dread. And I realized I didn't want to reignite that feeling first thing in the morning, or even multiple times per day.
So I took a drastic step. I blocked access to email on my phone. If I wanted to check email, I had to do it on a computer. This meant I wasn't getting irritated and stressed by emails all day. And it meant that when I did read emails, I could actually respond to them with a full keyboard (instead of getting annoyed with the smartphone keyboard).
After blocking email for a little while, I found I had managed to break my addiction. When I allowed email back on my phone, I was able to use it for receipts, confirmations, and order pickups without feeling the need to check other email constantly throughout the day. These days, I rarely check email on my phone unless there's a specific message I'm waiting on.
I ran the same experiment with social media apps and websites on my computer, and was able to reduce my desire to be on social media. However, as soon as I allowed social media apps back on my phone, my behavior became compulsive. My mood and physical health and comfort deteriorated. So I took social media off my phone and have kept it off.
As you experiment with limiting social media, email, and screen time, pay attention to how your body feels. How do you feel when you wake up? How do you feel during peak work hours? How do you feel before you fall asleep? Take a baseline assessment before you start cutting, or adding back, screen time. Then check in daily for the next week, even month, writing down how you feel at those critical times of the day.
People often underestimate the importance of stress levels in the development of chronic tension and chronic physical pain.
If you are constantly feeling hyper-alert, vigilant, and tense, your muscles will reflect that. That constant tension will impact your physical comfort and mobility. That may manifest in your shoulders, back, hips, or any other area where your muscles can stiffen or atrophy.
If you're on a journey to free yourself from chronic pain and you're thinking about surgery, take a moment to look carefully at your life.
High stress levels driven by our daily exposure to convenient technologies can contribute to and aggravate chronic back, shoulder, and hip pain.
Think about cutting other things from your life before you start cutting body parts.
Suffering from joint pain? Read Why you DON'T Need Orthopedic Surgery for Joint Pain
Dive deeper and learn How to Identify Muscle Imbalances and Dysfunction.