What is Tech Neck and How to Prevent It
Smartphones are the fastest growing technology in the last 20 years. It’s estimated that 95% of Americans own a smartphone of some kind. These devise have become an integral part of our daily lives—from checking work email and managing social media accounts to texting, gaming, and video chatting with millennials being the most technology dependent.
With the rapid rise of cell phones, excessive use may be leading to a new condition affecting the cervical spine, upper back, and shoulders of users. ‘Tech neck’ is what doctors and chiropractors are calling the condition characterized by cell phone users sitting with their heads bent forward, shoulders slumped, staring at mobile devices. Prolonged screen use can shorten the neck muscles and put excess pressure on the neck.
“The head is like a 15-pound bowling ball sitting on a stick,” said Dr. Brian Su, a board-certified spine surgeon and medical director of spine surgery at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California.
“Flexing the head forward [to use a device] increases that weight to 50 pounds. At a 45-degree angle, that weighted pressure on the cervical spine is five-fold.”
How Tech Neck Affects Our Spine
Considering that smartphone users ages 18-34 spend 29% of their time viewing media and engaging others on a smartphone, it’s no surprise that overuse health conditions have developed. Though it starts out as mild discomfort and tightness, prolonged use without proper rest or stretching cause it to develop into a more sever condition.
“Any flexion over an extended period of time makes your neck and back work five times as hard and can lead to degeneration of the discs,” said Su.
While the biggest culprits of tech neck are cell phones and tablets, computer screens not set to eye level can cause cervical damage, too. The result of hunching over caused by technology overuse also changes the structure of the user’s neck.
“Tech neck alters the biomechanics of the neck,” said Su. “Facet joints can get stretched and people can develop chronic neck pain. Degeneration and bone spurs can push on nerves causing pain.”
Diagnoses Will Increase Over Time
According to Su, tech neck diagnoses have increased over the past five years. He said the condition has been so prevalent among young people that he has seen X-rays of damaged spines only to be surprised when he sees the patient.
“I see an X-ray thinking it’s a 60- or 70-year-old, and it’s an 18- or 19-year-old,” he said. “If you have loss of cervical posture and degeneration at 18, you’re going to have a lot of pain by 70.
With children as young as 8 spending an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes per day on screens, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that by age 18 these same kids will be treated for cervical spine pain.
“It takes 10 to 30 years before you see the degeneration. The poor posture does it,” said Su.
Do I Have Tech Neck?
If you’re wondering whether or not that twinge in your neck is a symptom or tech neck, Su said the underlying symptoms are:
- Chronic neck pain, particularly in the shoulder and neck
- Numbness and tingling in the arms
- Neck spasms
- Pain by the shoulder blades
Su said the condition is treated non-operatively. He recommended seeing your doctor if you feel numbness, pain, weakness in your neck. Treatment includes neck stretches, physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic care. If symptoms don’t improve, or worsen, after 90 days, Su said to “see a spine specialist and get an MRI to see the ultrastructure of the spine.”
For those young enough, the condition is reversible, and you can do exercises to reshape the posture of the neck. “After 60-70 it’s a hard ask,” said Su.
To treat tech neck, doctors often recommend neck and back stretches and exercises. Here are a few of the most common:
- Chin Tuck. This exercise is designed to relieve neck and should pain associated with device overuse.
- Neck Extensions. Poor posture and hunching over computers and tablets can make neck muscles tight. Neck extension stretches can help with pain and posture, giving you relief.
- Chest Openers. Since many people work in offices behind computers most of the day, arms and shoulders tend to lock into the same position causing the muscles to tighten and become uncomfortable. These chest opening stretches will help you to stretch your neck, back, and shoulders to prevent stiffness over time.
- Office Yoga. If you have a yoga mat, unroll it near your desk and try some gentle neck and back poses like baby cobra and upward facing dog.
Tips for Avoiding Text Neck
Su offers the following tips for mobile phone and tablet users who want to avoid this painful condition.
- Holding your cell phone or tablet up 10 to 20 degrees higher than you should to allow your neck to be at a more natural position
- If you’re in a fixed position, as is the case with a laptop or desktop computer, take a break every 15 to 30 minutes and stretch the chest with a reverse pushup in the doorway. Do chin tucks if you’re at your computer.
- Make sure you’re not hunched forward for hours at a time. Take frequent posture checks.
Smartphone and tablet use and dependency will only increase as technology continues to change. In a Pew Research poll, 46% of smartphone owners said their phones were something “they couldn’t live without.” Taking time to unplug weekly, stretch regularly, and being judicious with smartphones and laptops can help prevent tech neck and subsequent chronic back pain conditions like degenerative disc disease from technology use.