Cellphone-related head and neck injuries on the rise, study says

Those aged 13 to 29 make up almost 40 percent of such patients. Distraction was a major culprit.
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Over a 20-year period, more than 2,500 cellphone users visited the emergency room with head or neck injuries in falls, a new study found.Michael Nagle / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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By A. Pawlowski

People distracted by their cellphones are tripping, falling and hurting their heads and necks more often, with such injuries increasing “steeply” over a 20-year period, a new analysis has found.

Most cases were mild, but some involved facial lacerations and traumatic brain injuries that could lead to long-term consequences, the authors warned.

The study, published Thursday in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, is believed to be the first to investigate the role smartphones play in injuries to these parts of the body. Previous studies have found that all types of “distracted walking” injuries have been on the rise.

Dr. Boris Paskhover, a reconstructive surgeon and the lead author of the new paper, started looking into the statistics after seeing patients with broken jaws or facial wounds who would tell him they fell while staring at their phones and not paying attention to their surroundings.

“I don’t think people are aware of how fragile we are as humans. We’re resilient, but we’re also fragile. You fall and you can get a pretty bad injury,” Paskhover, an assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery, at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told NBC News.

“You walk in the city and you see everyone just looking at their phones," he said. "Be aware that you can hurt yourself.”

The study looked for cellphone-related injuries to the head and neck listed in the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a database that collects information about emergency room visits from about 100 U.S. hospitals.

From January 1998 to December 2017, there were 2,501 patients who sought help for such issues. If translated onto a national scale, the number of cases would amount to more than 76,000 people, the authors estimated.

Head and neck injuries related to cellphone use were relatively rare until the rate began to increase sharply in 2007, the year the first iPhone was released, followed by a much steeper increase that peaked in 2016.

Cellphone users aged 13 to 29 made up almost 40 percent of the patients, and most of the injuries caused by distraction happened in this age group.

A third of the cases involved the head; another third affected the face, including the eyelids, eye area and nose; and about 12 percent involved the neck.

Many of the injuries were caused by falls when people were looking at their phones and not paying attention to their surroundings — like texting while walking, for example, Paskhover said.

Children younger than 13 were more likely to be directly hurt by the phone — accidentally hit by a device that was in their parent’s hand, for example. Paskhover has also had patients who were playing a game on their phone when it slipped, hit them on the face and broke their nose. “It happens,” he noted.

The most common injuries included lacerations, which accounted for 26 percent of the cases. Scarring from facial lacerations can lead to anxiety and lower self-esteem, the study noted.

Another quarter of patients suffered bruises and abrasions.

Internal organ injuries made up almost a fifth of the cases, or 18 percent. When referring to the head, this diagnosis most commonly indicated traumatic brain injuries — “those are the scary ones,” Paskhover said.

“We have a skull that protects our brain, but it doesn’t mean it’s impervious. Your brain is soft,” he noted. “I see patients who die just from falling. A fall from upright — you fall, you hit your head the wrong way, you get a traumatic brain injury.”

Still, most patients in the study were treated and released from the hospital, or released without any treatment required.

The findings suggest there’s a need for public education about the risks of being distracted by cellphones beyond texting and driving, the authors noted.

The takeaway is “don’t be distracted — period,” Paskhover said. “Be self-aware. Answer a text message, fine, but you shouldn’t be walking around reading articles on your phone.”

Earlier this year, New York lawmakers proposed a ban on texting while crossing the street.

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