Do you have “Tech Neck”?

Technology in all its forms is an increasingly integral part of daily life, most adults own and regularly use a smart device. They brilliantly allow us to work, shop, book holidays, listen to music, read books, watch movies, learn new skills, and catch up with friends and family on the go, wherever we happen to be.

The downside is that countless hours spent viewing videos of cats in Pilates classes, or whatever your current habit of online screen viewing is at the moment, our bodies are bearing the brunt of our repetitive relationship with our beloved devices. Habitually repeating the same movement with the body can lead to strain, injury and pain.

With a high probability that you are reading this article on your smartphone or tablet.  

  • How are you sitting?  
  • Where is your head?  
  • Is your neck hurting?

What is Tech Neck?

The risk of neck pain connected to tech usage is a more important issue than many people realise.  Holding our head in a flexed and forward position while looking at handheld devices places our neck in a comprised position. “tech neck” was the term given to describe the repeated neck soreness or pain children reported when looking at their phones, digital games or tablets. But technology related neck pain equally applies to adult users who slump or hunch over a laptop or any handheld device.

Here’s the science bit (well sort of)

Surveys suggest that UK adults touch their phone up to 2,617 times every day! The estimates for teenagers is significantly higher, with reports of up to 5,400 times daily, which averages around five hours of tech usage each day, every day.  Just to put this into perspective, most adults touch their face 2500 times daily.

Why is Tech Neck a problem?

Using a smartphone or other devices with the neck flexed and the head poking forward to view the screen is so familiar many of us believe its ‘normal’ and so don’t associate the aches and pains with this habitual posture.  Awkward positions or technology overuse can cause tense ‘grumpy’ muscles around the neck, shoulders and upper back, and can lead to lower back discomfort or ankle and foot pain too.  These sustained postures can put a strain on the joint at the top of the neck where our head joins on to the neck can be a cause of headaches also.

While minor neck pain associated with digital use (or overuse) is worrying enough, as an osteopath I know that for every 2.5 cm our head pokes in front of our neck, it adds 4.5kgs of pressure to our spine. Which is around the same weight as a bowling ball, which means most people are carrying around a head that’s double its average weight, yikes!

This added weight and force straightens the natural curves in the cervical and thoracic spine, which result in poor alignment throughout the whole spine. Over time this head-forward posture can lead to muscle strain, disc injury, nerve impingement and arthritic changes. In some people it will also cause shoulder discomfort and pain radiating down the arms, medically this is known as cervical radiculopathy (“pinched nerve”).

Symptoms of Tech Neck?

Habitual flexed and forward head position produces changes to the spinal curve of the neck, resulting in reverse of the natural curve or it straightening out, symptoms can include:

  • Neck pain
  • Pain between shoulder blades
  • Tense shoulders
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Tingling or loss of feeling in the hands and fingers

When to seek help?

If the self-help tips below don’t help improve symptoms, or you’re experiencing ongoing pain, seek help from your GP or qualified health professional such as an osteopath. In most cases, the sooner treatment starts and appropriate lifestyle changes implemented the more likely a positive outcome will result

Osteopathy and tech neck treatment 

Osteopaths are treating increasing numbers of people with these complaints, my youngest patient with technology-related neck pain is just seven years old and the oldest in their late 80’s.  While happy to dip into the osteopathic (and clinical pilates) toolbox of manual and movement therapy to improve symptoms, and sending people home with corrective exercise or specific stretches. Osteopaths like to find the root cause of problems and empower patients to ensure that ultimately their symptoms will resolve if, at all possible, the self-help tips below can be helpful. 

Self-help, simple steps to prevent tech neck

  • If you have a desk based job ask for an ergonomics assessment.
  • For home laptop users consider a laptop stand and a separate keyboard, which are easy ways to improve head and neck posture.
  • Take regular micro-tech-breaks; for every 30 minutes of use, stand up, change position or move around. If needs be, set a “take a break” alarm on your phone or wearable device.
  • Change your posture when you use your smartphone to reduce neck and back pain. Use a tablet holder, try to raise your device up to eye-level; this can dramatically reduce the amount of neck flexion and forward positioning.
  • Switching to a chair with a headrest, can prevent forward head posture while using tablets, phones or laptops, and will encourage looking with the eyes instead of the entire head.

In summary

“Tech neck” pain is a warning; whether it’s in the neck, shoulders or presents as frequent headaches. Prompt action can reduce or eliminate these symptoms and prevent the more severe problems. 

The simple solution and biggest challenge are to stop looking down and bring the device up in front of your face.  Take home mantra; chin up and lift your breastbone.

Need more help

Coming soon ‘Pilates to ease neck tension’’,  and Karma Pilates for neck health workshop (open to existing Pilates clients only).