16 November 2019

Young people are growing horns, thanks to phones + tablets

horns for youngs
CC BY 4.0 Example radiograph of 28-years-old male presenting with large enthesophytes emanating from the occipital squama. (Scientific Reports)

You thought 'text neck' was bad? Kids these days are growing 'enlarged external occipital protuberances.'

I used to joke that soon enough humans would evolve to have unusually large thumbs and be generally myopic because of our attachment to smartphones. But my silly sense of humor could have never imagined what is really happening, and happening surprisingly quickly: We are growing horns.

Or at least that's what scientists are suggesting after research on the emergence of "enlarged external occipital protuberances" (EEOP) amongst young people. Could this be true?

As Isaac Stanley-Becker reports for The Washington Post:
New research in biomechanics suggests that young people are developing hornlike spikes at the back of their skulls bone spurs caused by the forward tilt of the head, which shifts weight from the spine to the muscles at the back of the head, causing bone growth in the connecting tendons and ligaments. The weight transfer that causes the buildup can be compared to the way the skin thickens into a callus as a response to pressure or abrasion.

So far, the odd new bits of anatomy have garnered all kinds of names, including head horns, phone bones, spikes, or weird bumps. All are accurate, says David Shahar, a chiropractor with a PhD in biomechanics and first author of the paper.

“That is up to anyone’s imagination,” Shahar told The Post. “You may say it looks like a bird’s beak, a horn, a hook.”

The new skeletal accessory extends out from the skull, just above the neck. And its appearance has come as a surprise to the pair of scientists who conducted the study at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.

In a previous study, the team reported the development of prominent exostosis (which the dictionary defines as a "benign outgrowth of cartilaginous tissue on a bone") jutting out from the external occipital protuberance (EOP) in 41 percent of young adults. Since this isn't usually seen in young people, they decided to do more research.

For the more recent study, they compared the EOPs in 1,200 X-rays of subjects between the ages 18 to 86. They found that a combination of sex, the degree of forward head protraction, and age predicted the presence of enlarged EOPs. Males with increased forward head protraction had more prominent exostosis; and these were for the younger males. Surprisingly, for the older subjects, the size decreased. From the study:

"Our latter findings provide a conundrum, as the frequency and severity of degenerative skeletal features in humans are associated typically with aging. Our findings and the literature provide evidence that mechanical load plays a vital role in the development and maintenance of the enthesis (insertion) and draws a direct link between aberrant loading of the enthesis and related pathologies."

They conclude that EEOPs may be linked to postures that have developed with the extensive use of hand-held devices like smartphones and tablets. "Our findings raise a concern about the future musculoskeletal health of the young adult population and reinforce the need for prevention intervention through posture improvement education," the authors write.

The horn itself may not be much of a problem, says co-author Mark Sayers. (Because, who doesn't like horns?) However, the formation is a “portent of something nasty going on elsewhere, a sign that the head and neck are not in the proper configuration,” he told The Post.

That we are contorting ourselves in service to our gadget obsessions – to the point that we are growing horn-beak-hook things in the back of our heads – just doesn't seem like something that ends well. As the authors conclude in their paper:

"An important question is what the future holds for the young adult populations in our study, when development of a degenerative process is evident in such an early stage of their lives?"

Read more at The Washington Post, and see the whole study and illustrations in Scientific Reports.

And for another take on this – as in, is this really possible? – see what our sister site MNN has to say: Will children really grow horns from too much phone use? (Though I'm sticking with horns!)

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