Are you reading this on your phone, computer or another mobile device? Are you looking down, shoulders hunched, while doing so? If so, your posture may be contributing to neck pain, headaches and other symptoms consistent with "tech neck," according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
Tech neck, also called "text neck," is a growing phenomenon that's due to the ubiquitous presence of screens – such as cell phones and tablets – in our daily lives. In 2017, Americans spent nearly 6 hours each day using digital media, including more than 3 hours on non-voice activities on mobile devices, according to a survey done by eMarketer.
But the curved posture most of us assume while emailing, texting or reading on our devices simply isn't good for the cervical spine, better known as the neck, Dr. Chang says. Since our properly positioned neck muscles are designed to support the weight of our head – about 10 to 12 pounds – constantly dropping our heads forward to look at a device actually puts about 60 pounds of force on the neck, he explains.
"Tech neck is actually an overuse or repetitive stress injury," Dr. Chang adds. "Rolling our heads and shoulders forward places a great deal of strain on the spine and can pull it out of alignment, even leading to pinched nerves and disc herniations. It's not necessarily a minor problem."
Symptoms of Tech Neck
How do you know if you're dealing with tech neck? In addition to soreness in the neck and shoulder areas, Dr. Chang says symptoms also include:
- Stiff neck
- Neck spasms
- Unexplained headaches
- Upper back pain, ranging from nagging discomfort to sharp spasms
- Shoulder tightness
- Radiating pain down the arms and into the hands
Even more concerning is that children and young adults – among the heaviest users of mobile devices – are developing these symptoms as their spines continue developing, Dr. Chang notes.
"Some research suggests that tech neck can lead to chronic spine problems and even early development of arthritis in the neck," he adds. "Because the consequences can be lifelong, it's especially important to avoid tech neck and to see a doctor if your symptoms won't go away."
How to Prevent Tech Neck
Prevention, of course, is always the best option when it comes to health problems, including tech neck. But since cell phones and other mobile devices can't be ignored in modern-day society, how can this be accomplished? Dr. Chang offers these tips:
Hold your cell phone or tablet at eye level whenever possible. "Even better is to also keep your laptop or desk top computer screen at eye level as well," he says.
Take breaks every 20 to 30 minutes. "Look up from your screen for several minutes," Dr. Chang recommends. "Even better, get up from your chair and walk around."
Limit device use to only necessary tasks. "Reducing screen time is a healthy goal for many reasons, not just spinal health," he says.
Exercise and stretch muscles in the neck, shoulders and upper back on a regular basis.
Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist, also suggests sitting at a slightly reclined position when using devices – not strictly upright.
"Sitting at a 25- to 30-degree angle, with good lower back support, places much less force on the spinal discs in the back and neck than sitting up ramrod-straight," he says. "This way, neck and shoulder muscles aren't taxed to hold your head up."
"The bottom line is to be mindful of your neck and shoulder position whenever you're using a mobile device," Dr. Chang adds. "Vigilance is key to preventing tech neck."