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.
This article covers the notion of tech neck, its symptoms, ways to prevent neck pain, and some helpful exercises to ease the pain and promote neck health.
What is tech neck?
Tech neck, also called "text neck," is a growing phenomenon 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 of 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 an overuse or repetitive stress injury," Dr. Chang adds. "Rolling our heads and shoulders forward places great strain on the spine and can pull it out of alignment, even leading to pinched nerves and disc herniation. It's not necessarily a minor problem."
So, usually, by saying tech neck, people mean neck pain caused by repetitive movements during computer work. Sometimes tech neck also causes shoulder pain, pain in the upper back, headaches, soreness, or stiffness in muscles, tingling or numbness, and the symptoms worsen after long work periods. Long-term tech neck can even lead to posture problems.
This issue appears because of repetitive movements of your neck. While working on a computer or using your phone, the neck muscles contract to hold your head. This is the primary cause of tech neck. Considering that most people work many hours, the muscles get tired and sore, resulting in a tech neck. It’s important to say that simply sitting straight won’t help, as it makes your muscles contract even harder. In this article, we’ll cover the prevention 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.
Reduced mobility in the neck or shoulders, jaw pain, and numbness or tingling in arms are rarer, but still, they also are signs of tech neck. Pain between the shoulder blades is a relatively common symptom, while trouble with looking up or down is a less frequent issue, as well as balance problems.
As the issue progresses, it can cause deconditioning of the neck, chest, and upper body muscles, which affects posture. This new posture can be characterized as a forward head posture with rounded shoulders. Muscles must strain and tighten to hold the head, increasing pressure on spinal discs. It boosts the natural wear and tear of spinal discs and makes them degrade much faster. It can also result in a pinched nerve, that causes pain, weakness, tingling, or numbness in the arm. So, cervical radiculopathy is among the complications of tech neck if the cervical nerve root is compressed or just irritated.
"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 essential to avoid tech neck and to see a doctor if your symptoms won't go away."
A typical treatment targets reducing symptoms, especially pain. Your doctor can recommend rest, physical therapy, and massage. They can prescribe special injections in cases of severe pain or muscle tightness. In case of a pinched nerve, you might need surgery. In any case, the best treatment is preventing neck issues.
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 keep your laptop or desktop 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." It can be beneficial to gently move your head and shoulders during these breaks to increase blood flow and relax neck muscles.
Limit device use to only necessary tasks. "Reducing screen time is a healthy goal for many reasons, not just spinal health," he says.
Using proper equipment and investing in a high-quality ergonomic chair, table and monitor is key to tech neck prevention. You can also try standing desks, which help you move more and avoid a stiff neck.
Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist, also suggests sitting in a slightly reclined position when using devices – not strictly upright.
"Sitting at a 25- to a 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."
To ease the pain and prevent damage, you can perform some exercises on a daily basis. It can be jogging, swimming, or walking for at least 30 minutes 3-4 times a week. Some gentle stretches and yoga are also quite beneficial.
Exercise and regularly stretch muscles in the neck, shoulders, and upper back. You can try chin tucks, which are easy to perform anywhere. This exercise involves drawing your head back, holding it in this position for a couple of seconds, and then releasing it. So, it’s like an exaggerated “yes” movement.
Another exercise you can try is moving your head from left to right as if you are saying “no” and trying to touch your shoulder with your ear.
Slightly more challenging exercises to perform at home involve yoga asanas. The cobra pose and downward facing dog are great for relaxing neck muscles and stretching them.
"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."