You might have read—with understandable alarm—the headlines claiming that smartphones cause “horns” to grow at the back of our heads. Before you panic and throw out your smartphone or tablet, here’s the real story behind the media hype…and the real message behind the research.

The “horns” the media refer to are bone spurs—the medical term is exostoses—and the research is a 2018 study from University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, that found head and neck X-rays were showing exostoses in a surprising number of younger adults.

Exostoses are not uncommon. They can occur in many areas of the body where muscle attaches to bone. Stress on the spot where the bone grows into the muscle—called the insertion site—can cause the bone to gradually grow an extension into the muscle to strengthen the connection and to spread the load over a larger area of the bone surface. But because exostoses take years to grow, they are more common in older people. An example is a heel spur, which is rarely seen in people younger than age 40.

On an X-ray, the extension can be shaped like a tiny beak or horn, a description the media apparently latched on to. However, using descriptive terms for anatomical structures is not uncommon. For example, the cochlea of the inner ear is derived from the Latin word for snail shell, which it resembles.

The Sunshine Coast researchers’ 2018 study was actually following up a 2016 study they had done that found 41% of 218 relatively young (ages 18 to 30) head and neck X-ray patients had prominent exostoses. And one of the researchers observed in his chiropractic practice that over the past decade, prominent exostoses in younger people seemed to be common. To investigate further, they reviewed skull X-rays for a larger population that included a wider age span—1,200 people ages 18 to 86, including chiropractic patients as well as asymptomatic university students.

Results: Significant exostoses were found in 33% of the total. Not surprisingly, they were found in 25% of patients age 60 and older compared within 5% to 15% of those who were ages 30 to 50. What was surprising was that the group that had the highest rate (45%) were patients ages 18 to 30.

WHAT MAY BE GOING ON

The researchers pointed out that the bony growths are not dangerous. While they show up on an X-ray, they aren’t visible otherwise. If you have one, you may be able to feel it with your hand at the back of your head just above your neck. And although some very large exostoses have been reported to cause pain, none of the patients in either study complained of pain.

The researchers explained that their study was not designed to look for causes of skull exostoses or why they might be increasing among younger people. The researchers did point out that the posture people adopt when using smartphones and tablets—keeping the head leaning forward and downward—creates the kind of stress that can cause exostoses to develop. In fact, the study did find prominent exostoses to be more common in patients whose habitual posture had a forward projection of their cervical spine. The researchers speculated that the fact that people in the 18-to-30-year-old age group have been using such devices most of their lives could also explain why exostoses are showing up larger and more often in that group.

BOTTOM LINE: STRAIGHTEN UP!

The hunching over handheld devices connection, however, is only a theory. Further research would need to confirm it. The real takeaway from this study is that it would be wise to pay attention to your posture during all your daily activities, not just when you’re using a smartphone or tablet. Slumping at your desk, walking with your chin stuck out or any other bad posture habit affects your body…and may even be affecting your skeleton.