A few months ago I started getting headaches, and they were weird. If a bad hangover headache feels splitting, I’d describe these headaches as searing, as if someone had hit me over the head with a red hot rod of steel sending electric bolts of pain across my skull.
By the time I finally went to a neurologist, I thought death was near. I’m being dramatic. I’m not exaggerating, though. A couple of years ago my cousin was diagnosed with brain cancer after suffering ongoing headaches that turned out to be caused by a tumor, and the family’s been on edge about all things brain-related since.
While it seemed highly unlikely that my headaches were an indication of something so serious, I found myself wringing my hands in the waiting room of a New York University doctor’s office a couple weeks ago, prepared for the worst.
“I think I know what’s going on,” Dr. Myrna Cardiel told me casually after a 20-minute-long examination. After I described my headaches, she’d shined lights in my eyes, tested my coordination skills, watched me walk, and asked a laundry list of questions. Then, she pulled up Google and typed in a scary-looking phrase: “occipital neuralgia.”
Using Google Images to illustrate her explanation, Dr. Cardiel explained how the occipital nerves emerge from the spinal column at the back of your neck and branch out along your entire scalp. Occipital neuralgia is a condition that occurs when the base of the nerves become compressed or damaged.
This results in chronic, often burning headaches that may be localized to the back or side of the head or, as in my case, spread to the top of the scalp. As she scrolled through diagrams of nerves stretching across skulls and pictures of doctors stabbing needles into patients’ scalp, the hand-wringing started again.
“What causes it?” I asked with a furrowed brow. And Dr. Cardiel asked me right away if I worked on a laptop or a desktop. (I usually work on a desktop with a propped up display.) We talked about my sleeping positions and posture. (I do my best to stand up straight!) Anything I was doing that could strain my neck muscles could ostensibly be the cause of the condition. Then, I arrived at the obvious.
“What about smartphone usage?” I asked. “I’m constantly craning my neck to look down at my phone. Maybe that has something to do with it.”
“You know what,” Dr. Cardiel said, nodding. “I’ve been a practicing neurologist for 10 years, and I’ve seen cases of this condition skyrocket since smartphones became popular. I should write a paper.”
Someone should. A cursory search for “occipital neuralgia smartphones” will bring up a recent report from the Sioux City Journal that warns of the strain our handheld devices put on our necks. One journal article cited in the article explains how tilting your head forward 60 degrees puts an extra 60 pounds of pressure on the top of your spine and surrounding muscles.
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