Since the advent of the smartphone and similar technology, we've all been keeping our heads down a lot more. We spend hour after hour hunched over, texting, responding to emails, scrolling social media and reading. Because of this, technology has taken a toll on our bodies. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of "tech neck."
A recent study shows that 79 percent of the population between the ages 18 and 44 have their cell phones with them almost all the time — with only 2 hours of their waking day spent without their cell phone in hand.
The problem is not with the technology itself. Like any other inanimate object, it is not responsible for our behavior. The problem is looking down for long periods of time. It especially is troubling because it creates poor posture in young children who have skeletal structures still in development. This wrong posture can cause permanent damage to their cervical spines leading to lifelong neck and back pain.
What Is Tech Neck?
Tech neck refers to the soreness and pain in the neck and upper back area. Other symptoms can include sharp pain in the upper back and shoulders, tightness and pain in shoulders, shoulder muscle spasms and the pain and other negative neurological symptoms from pinched nerves in the cervical spine. The most common symptoms patients complain about are headaches, neck pain and shoulder pain.
Tech neck occurs when the device is held at chest or waist level with eyes focused downward to the screen. Such a position puts severe strain on the muscles in the neck and lower back. If left untreated, it can cause permanent structural changes to your spine.
Simply being aware of our posture during device usage can help, in addition to some home exercises that people can do to avoid unsightly skeletal changes.
Effects on Our Spine
Due to the advancement of easily accessible technology, the signs of tech neck are developing at young ages. Tech neck also affects those who spend their entire work day at a desk and, if not addressed, it can affect people for the rest of their lives.
Your Head Is Heavy
In a normal standing position, the head faces forward and the curves of the neck and spine stay in their proper alignment. When the chin is dropped to the chest, the entire structure is stretched. Our heads weigh about 10 to 12 pounds, but when held at an angle, the position can increase the effects of that weight significantly.
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For example, holding a 12-pound head at just a 15-degree angle puts 27 pounds of stress on the neck. Double the angle to 30 degrees and it puts 40 pounds of pressure on the neck. And when the head is held at an excessive 60-degree angle, it puts 60 pounds of pressure on the neck. These torqued angles that are being put on the neck are up to five times more than your neck was designed to hold.
With smartphone usage being, on average, four hours a day, it's no wonder our necks hurt. (Oh, and for the curious: that’s about 1,400 hours per year!) Over time, improper posture can lead to tension headaches, neck sprains, neck pain and herniated discs.
Additionally, excessive head flexion and a hunched over posture can also cause breathing problems because it prevents the rib cage from full expansion. In serious cases, surgery on the spine may be necessary. The stress on the neck can also cause permanent structural changes in the spine.
X-rays have been used to show the differences in spines. Individuals with tech neck, especially severe cases, will see a big change in their spines. Their backbones will curve in the opposite direction. This is due to the strain on the ligaments and muscle structure.
There aren’t many current treatments for the long-term effects of tech neck. Most common options include active posture awareness, the correction of postural habits, along with therapeutic massage and exercise.
Once tech neck develops, there's not much you can do to reverse it. Therefore, prevention is key.
Try holding your devices at eye level as often as you can. The biggest and easiest thing you can do to combat tech neck is to stop looking down, so bring your device up in front of your face so you're at eye level.
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Also, take frequent breaks away from your devices, computers included. Putting technology away for at least 30 minutes is a good start. Exercising during those 30 minutes will help prevent tech neck even more. If you get engrossed in your reading or work and are prone to forgetting this rest period, try setting an alarm on your phone to remind you. Implementing mobile-free time into your daily routine is a change for the better.
Good Posture vs Bad Posture
Individuals with good posture will have their ears aligned properly with the shoulders and their shoulder blades correctly retracted (by pulling them back and squeezing them together,) so that the spine is in an upright position.
Individuals with bad posture often have their ears mis-aligned with the front of their shoulders and their necks angled forward. When the neck muscles are flexed in this position, it causes constant stress. The shoulders can also be slumped and rounded forward, with the shoulder blades not retracted.
When determining the condition of your posture, it is easier to look at your profile in the mirror or have someone take a profile picture of you. Imagine drawing a vertical line from the middle of your ear to the middle of your shoulder. If your posture isn’t perfect, try doing some shoulder extensions. Arch your neck and upper back backward, pulling your shoulders into alignment under your ears. This should take the stress off your muscles.
Exercises to Help
Full-Body Exercises to Prevent Tech Neck
A proper exercise routine can minimize the chronic effects of tech neck and prevent further issues from developing. While performing these exercises, repeat each until you feel you’ve done enough without putting too much stress on the body. Generally, about 8 to 12 repetitions should do it.
Lay your body face down with your legs extended. Keep your legs on the mat as you place your hands directly under your shoulders. Also keep your chin tucked into your neck and your gaze on the floor. Gently take your hands off the ground while squeezing your shoulder blades together for a few seconds. Return to the start position.
Cobra with External Rotation
This one is similar to the baby cobra, but with a twist! While lying face down, place your arms with your palms down at a 45-degree angle to your body. Again, keep your chin tucked. Lift your legs off the ground and while contracting your glutes, squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift your torso off the ground. Rotate your palms so your thumbs face upwards as you lift your arms. Return to start position.
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Start in the Facing Dog position, a popular yoga position that stretches your neck. While lying face down, place your hands close to your shoulders and press into the ground. Lift your torso off the ground and try to keep your shoulder aligned with your wrists. Tilt your head back, opening your chest as you push up toward the ceiling.
Start on your hands and knees with your back in a tabletop position. While looking directly at the floor, maintain a neutral spine. Then extend your left leg behind you and reach your right arm forward. Engage your core and keep your hips and shoulders square. Remember to keep your back flat. After three seconds, return to your starting position and then repeat with the opposite limbs.
The following stretches are simple and can be repeated throughout the day. Try to take micro breaks throughout the work day and stretch. Each stretch should be repeated three to five times.
Side Bending Neck Stretch
Tilt your head to the right so your ear touches your shoulder and hold for about 30 seconds. Then repeat in the other direction.
Head Rotation Stretch
This is similar to the bending neck stretch, but you should be rotating, not bending. Rotate your chin to your right shoulder and hold for 30 seconds. Bring your head facing forward. Then turn to the left and hold for 30 seconds.
Chin Tuck Stretch
Start by looking straight forward, then move your chin toward your chest and hold it there for five seconds before relaxing.
Improve Your Posture with a Standing Desk
The benefits of correcting the posture you carry will extend far beyond treating tech neck.
While sitting up straight in a good posture is a great start, spending too much time in a seated position is just not good for your body. If you have a job that requires you to stay seated at a desk for long hours daily, you need to take micro breaks, do the stretches mentioned above and stand frequently. You can do this, without it interrupting your workflow, by getting a "standing desk."
Such multi-level desks can be bought in office supply stores or, more conveniently, on Amazon. Standing desks accommodate a worker while sitting, but also raises to work with an employee while he or she is standing. After all, standing will go a long way toward improving your posture.
The bottom line is to avoid looking down with your head bent forward for extended periods throughout the day. Spend a whole day being mindful of your posture. Think about the posture you want to adopt when you undertake other daily activities.
Anything that causes you to look down for prolonged periods of time may put you at risk developing painful symptoms. Any of these small changes mentioned can save you from chronic neck and back pain.
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