The expression Text Neck, which was coined in 2008 by a Florida doctor, refers to a repetitive stress injury that develops from texting. Specifically, it develops as a result of keeping your head forward and down in that universal pose we all strike to text, update Facebook and keep tabs on Instagram stars.
Neck pain is the most obvious symptom of what has become known as Tech Neck, recognizing that tablets and e-readers, along with desktops and other screens, also play a role in sparking the condition. The ailment can also include headache and tingling hands, along with shoulder and lower back pain. Moreover, it’s common. “I’d say some form of Tech Neck affects half my patients,” says Jonathan Sun, a Certified Athletic Therapist as well as clinical director and owner of Evolution Sports Therapy in Vancouver.
No surprise really, since Canadians spend 90 minutes a day on our smart phones, many of us contorted into the position that leads to Tech Neck: “Elbows at 90 degrees, shoulders rolled, chin forward, head down, and rounded back,” says Sun. That position for any period of time causes a heaping helping of hurt. Why?
Pitching your head forward increases pressure on your neck. According to the report Assessment of Stresses about the Cervical Spine, by Dr. Ken Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, an adult head in neutral position (face forward, ears over shoulders) weighs about 12 pounds. When we’re in Tech Neck position, the force put on our neck is closer to 60 pounds. Our necks aren’t designed for that. This posture puts wear and tear on the back and, over time, can pull the spine out of alignment.
In the short term, the pain can make it impossible to face simple tasks. “Long term, it affects everything,” says Sun, reciting specific possibilities: “Rotator cuff impingement, carpal tunnel syndrome, pinched nerves, chronic upper body pain and headaches…”
Thankfully the fixes are simple – and don’t involve going off-line.
Always sit properly
“That means you use the whole chair,” says Sun.
Don’t perch on the edge; move all the way back. Make sure you can feel the chair back along your actual back.
For texting and otherwise using your smartphone, keep your phone close to eye level, keep your elbows close to your body, and tuck your chin in a little bit. This keeps your head closer to neutral position, which puts less pressure on your neck and spine. It’s awkward, but it’s good for you.
Impose new demands on your body
“Everything we do is a demand we put on our body,” says Sun, referring to those practices that become habitual. “And our body will always adapt to those demands.”
Some demands are positive – swimming is a demand, as is eating breakfast, or meditating. Our body adapts to those things by getting stronger, more efficient and clear headed.
Other demands, like sitting and using a phone, aren’t so positive. Our body responds by getting hunched and radiating pain.
No one is suggesting you give up devices, which is probably impossible for the three in four Canadians who own a smartphone, but “you have to impose another demand that balances the body,” Sun says.
In this case, any physical activity that you do three times a week. “Find something, anything you enjoy and do it regularly,” says Sun. “To counteract Tech Neck, you just need to move.”
Get up from your desk every hour
Use this time to stretch for a few minutes. Sun recommends making large pinwheels with your arms to loosen chest as well as upper and lower back. Those muscles are likely to get tight from all your screen time, but stretching your neck is also important.
Here’s a simple but effective move: put one hand on the opposite shoulder. Press down and tilt your head away from your shoulder. Hold for a few seconds, then switch sides.
A Cat Back Stretch will give some relief to your upper back: Put both arms straight in front of you. Clasp one wrist with the opposite hand. Round your back and pull the wrist until you feel a stretch behind your shoulder.
So as you use various devices to connect to the world, remember these simple tips to help ensure using your device doesn’t also connect you to a world of pain.
Jonathan has been a practicing athletic therapist for 13 years. He owns two clinics in the Vancouver area. He has worked clinically since 2004 and was the Athletic Therapist for the Canadian National Tae Kwon Doe Team for the 2006 Commonwealth Championships, Canadian Senior Womens Basketball, Canadian U-18 Womens Soccer, and BC provincial soccer program.