(Image sourced form Everyday Health)
Angela Haupt / August 10, 2021
If you’ve ever spent hour after hour, day after day staring at your computer screen, you probably know the pain that is “tech neck.” It’s a term that’s come to refer to the soreness, stiffness, and even injury that can result from bending your head downward to look at an electronic device for too long, according to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
“It’s the fallout from spending too much time looking down at phones or tablets, or holding your head too far forward to look at a computer screen,” explains Stacie J. Stephenson, a doctor of chiropractic and chair of functional medicine for Cancer Treatment Centers of America, who is based in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
If you can relate, read on for why “tech neck” can be bad for long-term health, symptoms to look out for, and what to do about it.
Why Is ‘Tech Neck’ Bad for You?
“Tech neck” can cause headaches, neck pain, pain in the shoulders, pain in the upper back, tingling or numbness in your hands, and even a loss of the natural curve of the spine, says Steven Knauf, doctor of chiropractic and executive director of chiropractic and compliance at The Joint Chiropractic in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The severity of the symptoms will vary from person to person, but they tend to be more prominent in correlation with an increased level of activity on a cell phone or other device, he notes.
In a study published in 2019 in PLoS One that included survey data from more than 500 people, researchers found a strong association between the amount of time someone spent using their phone and the duration and severity of their neck pain. The study authored recommended that people pay more attention to healthy sitting positions and the amount of time using cellphones to potentially help cut back on neck and shoulder pain caused by device use.
Dr. Knauf notes that “tech neck” can also lead to posture problems. Spending hours hovering over your phone or straining your neck forward during work can cause lengthening of neck muscles and shortening of chest muscles, he explains — “which may lead to an increase of spinal pressure in your neck.”
Be mindful of your posture throughout the day, and try to correct it as soon as possible when you find yourself slipping into awkward positions.
So what’s the right way to sit? “Stop looking down at devices,” Dr. Stephenson urges.
Instead, hold or set your phone at eye level (which is good for your arm muscles), and when you’re at your computer, position your screen high enough so you can look straight out at it, rather than down. Your spine should be in one straight line from the top of your head to your tailbone. To get it right, you’ll need to hold your head over your spine, rather than letting it drop forward, Stephenson says.
Symptoms of ‘Tech Neck’: Signs Your Spine Is Out of Line
Pain is the most obvious symptom that your neck is out of place. “Your neck, shoulders, and back should not hurt,” Stephenson says. “Pain is not normal.”
Those who are in their forties or fifties might notice they’re developing a curvature or bending of the spine at the base of their neck, which she describes as a sure sign of a chronic misalignment.
Other symptoms of “tech neck,” according to Knauf:
- Tension in the upper back
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems — pain or dysfunction in the jaw joints and muscles
- Tingling or numbness in the hands
- Weakness in the hands
- Rotator cuff tendonitis
Seeing a doctor — starting with your primary care provider, and potentially a specialist physician and physical therapist who are trained in posture and spine health — as soon as signs and symptoms appear is beneficial. “The sooner the problem is addressed, the less likely more serious problems can set in,” Knauf says. If left untreated, tech neck could lead to permanent health concerns, like arthritis or disc injuries.
10 Tips (Including Stretches) for ‘Tech Neck’
Here are some easy stretches and other ways to prevent and overcome “tech neck.” A reminder from Knauf: You shouldn’t have pain when you’re stretching. If you’re performing a neck or posture stretch and your symptoms worsen or you feel new pain, stop and see your doctor.
For the stretches (tips 1 through 8), aim to do each 10 times, one to three times a day, Stephenson and Knauf recommend.
- Do chin tucks. Start standing or sitting with your spine straight. Draw your head straight back like you’re making a double-chin. In this position you offset the effects of constantly thrusting your head forward (as you may do while looking at a screen), Knauf says. Make sure not to tilt your head back when doing this, he advises; keep your chin tucked in, but still parallel to the floor. Hold for five seconds, release. Then repeat.
- Try the ‘hand to ear’ stretch. Place your right hand flat against the right side of your head, Knauf says. Try to tilt your head to your right shoulder while pushing against your hand. Hold for five seconds, release slowly, and repeat on the other side.
- Do the ‘hands to forehead’ stretch. This is another of Knauf’s favorite stretches: Place both hands on your forehead, and while keeping your chin parallel to the floor, try to push your head forward while also pushing your head back with your hands. Hold for five seconds, and repeat.
- Practice the cobra pose. Start lying down on the floor on your belly with your head looking down. Lift your head and upper chest off the ground with only minimal support from your hands, Stephenson says. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. It stretches the back and neck in the opposite position to the one that causes “tech neck,” therefore helping counter the imbalance.
- Try some Super(wo)mans. Lie on your stomach and alternately raise your right arm and left leg, then left arm and right leg, off the ground, Stephenson directs. Hold for a second or two, lower, and repeat.
- Check your spine alignment. Remember what Stephenson said about holding your phone at level, and making sure you’re not looking down at your devices? Check yourself multiple times throughout the day to ensure you haven’t slipped into an old, not-so-healthy posture.
- Use a standing desk. Or better yet, use a treadmill desk. Either one will encourage more continuous small movements throughout the day — whether it’s fidgeting at your standing desk or walking on the treadmill desk. “That movement can help to keep you from clamping down on your neck muscles,” Stephenson says. “Movement is your friend.”
- Take a break. At least once an hour, get up and move around. Do a few stretches and roll your neck to loosen up tight muscles, which will help prevent the spasms and stiffness that lead to “tech neck,” Stephenson says.
- Roll your shoulders back. Throughout the work day, roll your shoulders up and back as you shift your head back. This keeps muscles moving and repositions your body in a healthful way, Stephenson says.
- Limit screen time. Your job may require you to spend much of the day in front of a screen. If this is you, try to use your nonwork time doing things that don’t require you to be in front of a screen. Use that time for something fun that’s also good for your physical and mental health, like going for a walk, hanging out with friends face-to-face, or taking a nap. Your neck will thank you, Stephenson.