More than 9,000 Americans end up each year in hospital emergency departments due to cellphone-related head and neck injuries, according to a study published Thursday in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.
Many of those injuries are the result of people becoming distracted while using their cellphones, such as tripping on a sidewalk while checking their social media feeds. Others are caused directly by the device itself — when someone gets struck in the face by a phone, for example, or when a phone’s battery overheats and explodes.
Interestingly, the study found that the number of cellphone-related head and neck injuries jumped dramatically after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. During the decade before, such injuries were relatively infrequent.
“Although mobile telephones were gaining popularity prior to , their functions were limited, and they were therefore less likely to be major distractions when compared with modern-day smartphones,” the authors of the study write.
“Providing constant access to a variety of applications and internet browsers, these devices have become a necessary but potentially dangerous tool used by most people in the United States,” they add.
It’s already well known that cellphone use is behind a growing number of motor vehicle crashes in the United States. The National Safety Council reports that 2,841 people died in distraction-related crashes in 2018.
At any given moment, almost 10 percent of drivers are using either a handheld or hands-free phone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association. (Many people mistakenly believe that talking on a hands-free phone eliminates the risk of a distracted-driving crash. It doesn’t.)
The current study, however, focuses specifically on cellphone-related injuries to the head and neck, whether or not the person was driving.
For the study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Boris Paskhover, a facial plastic surgeon at Rutgers University Medical School, analyzed data collected by about 100 hospital emergency departments across the U.S. between 1998 and 2017. The data contains detailed “narratives” of the causes of the injuries seen in those departments, including the use (or misuse) of cellphones.
The researchers found that during the 20-year study period 2,501 patients sought medical care at emergency departments due to cellphone-related head and neck injuries. That figure, they calculated, equates to about 76,000 cases at all hospital emergency departments.
The annual number of cases totaled fewer than 2,000 before 2006. After the iPhone’s introduction in 2007, however, the number rose rapidly, climbing to a peak of about 9,000 cases in 2016.
Most of the injuries — 41 percent — occurred in people’s homes. Injuries resulting from distraction were most common among adolescents and young adults (those aged 13 to 29), although older adults also reported such injuries. Children younger than 13, however, were most likely to sustain a direct injury from a cellphone, such as having the device strike or fall on their face.
About a third of all the cellphone-related injuries were to the head, while another third were to the face, including the eyelids, eye area, nose and jaw. About 13 percent were to the neck.
The most common injuries were cuts to the skin or scalp (26 percent), followed closely by bruises and abrasions (25 percent).
As Paskhover and his colleagues point out in the study, cuts, scrapes and bruises may not seem to be major health concerns, but they can be.
“Facial lacerations and subsequent scarring can lead to anxiety and lowered self-esteem,” the researchers write. In addition, such injuries carry up to a 5 percent risk of infection, “which significantly increases the possibility of cosmetic dissatisfaction and the need for scar revision,” they note.
But cuts and bruises weren’t the only cellphone-related injuries that sent people in the study to seek care at a hospital emergency department. A significant proportion of the patients — 18 percent — were diagnosed with an “internal organ injury.”
When the head is involved, this diagnosis most commonly means a traumatic brain injury.
“Given that most patients were discharged and not admitted for treatment, we assume that these were cases of mild traumatic brain injury,” Paskhover and his colleagues write.
But that doesn’t mean those patients’ health is not at risk.
“The symptoms of postconcussion syndrome can vary in severity from mild (headache, nausea, or fatigue) to severe (memory problems, emotional ability, or depression),” the researchers point out. Such patients must receive close follow-up care after they leave the hospital, they add.
A wake-up call
The study comes with limitations. The database used in the study relies on people accurately reported how they became injured. Many people may have been too embarrassed — or too concerned about how being distracted by their cellphone might affect their insurance claims — to tell hospital personal the truth about the circumstances surrounding their injury.
In addition, the study looked only at visits to hospital emergency rooms, and not ones to urgent care centers or other healthcare settings. As a result, this study likely underestimates the total problem.
Still, the findings are strong enough to serve as a wake-up call to all of us. We need to put our cellphones away (and turn them off) when driving or walking or doing any other task that requires our full attention.
“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 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.”
For more information: You’ll find an abstract of the study on JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.