Humans Are Growing Weird, Bone Spikes on Their Skulls. Smartphones May Be the Culprit.

Friends looking at phones
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Editor’s Note: On Sept. 18, the authors of this “skull spikes” research published corrections to their study in the journal Scientific Reports. They noted that rather than finding “a direct link” between the formation of the skull spikes and poor posture due to the use of cell phones and tablets, they found “possible associations.” What’s more, they note that most of their data came from patients who had visited a clinician because of a health concern, so “care should be taken to avoid over generalizing these results to an asymptomatic general population.” They also included additional clarifications to the methods of the study and a competing interest: “David Shahar provides posture related services as a chiropractic clinician and posture related advice and products through,” they wrote. You can read the corrections on the journal’s website.

The hours we spend scrolling through our smartphones appear to be changing our skulls. This may be the reason why some people — especially the younger crowd — are developing a weird, bony spike just above their necks.

The bony skull bump — known as an external occipital protuberance — is sometimes so large, you can feel it by pressing your fingers on the base of your skull.

"I have been a clinician for 20 years, and only in the last decade, increasingly, I have been discovering that my patients have this growth on the skull," David Shahar, a health scientist at the University of The Sunshine Coast, Australia, told the BBC in a fascinating feature about the changing human skeleton. [10 Amazing Things We Learned About Humans in 2018]

A cause-and-effect relationship hasn't been identified, but it's possible that the spike comes from constantly bending one's neck at uncomfortable angles to look at smart devices. The human head is heavy, weighing about 10 lbs. (4.5 kilograms), and tilting it forward to look at funny cat photos (or however you spend your smartphone time) can strain the neck — hence the crick people sometimes get, known as "text neck."

Text neck can increase pressure on the juncture where the neck muscles attach to the skull, and the body likely responds by laying down new bone, which leads to that spiky bump, Shahar told the BBC. This spike distributes the weight of the head over a larger area, he said.

In a 2016 study in the Journal of Anatomy, Shahar and a colleague looked at the radiographs of 218 young patients, ages 18 to 30, to determine how many had these bumps. Regular spikes had to measure at least 0.2 inches (5 millimeters), and enlarged spikes measured 0.4 inches (10 mm).

In all, 41% of the group had an enlarged spike and 10% had an especially large spike measuring at least 0.7 inches (20 mm), the doctors found. In general, enlarged spikes were more common in males than in females. The largest spike belonged to a man, sticking out at 1.4 inches (35.7 mm).

Another study of 1,200 individuals, ages 18 to 86, that Shahar and a co-researcher did revealed that these spikes are more prevalent in younger people. Enlarged spikes occurred in 33% of the group, but participants ages 18 to 30 years old were significantly more likely to have these spikes than the older generations, they found.

These bony spikes are likely here to stay, Shahar said. "Imagine if you have stalactites and stalagmites, if no one is bothering them, they will just keep growing," he told the BBC. Luckily, these spikes rarely cause medical issues. If you are experiencing discomfort, however, try improving your posture, he said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.