Scrolling as we speak? Thought so.
The term coined for neck and back pain caused by using our digital devices, ‘tech neck’ was affecting many of us long before the pandemic. But months glued to the same screen all day, followed by endless scrolling all evening, and it's likely that this modern phenomenon is troubling every one of us right now.
“It probably is close to 100%,” said Dr. K. Daniel Riew, M.D., director of cervical spine surgery and co-director of spine surgery in the department of orthopedic surgery at the NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital in a recent Health Matters article, which discussed the fact that everyone probably has ‘tech neck’ now, with Americans spending a daily average of 5 hours and 53 minutes on their digital devices.
It makes sense: more time spent hunched over our laptops at home this year, the lack of work-life balance and surplus screen time throughout Covid-19 will have put a strain on our necks (and our mental health) more than ever before. But how can you tell if you actually have ‘tech neck’? Can you treat it easily? And the question we’re all wondering right now: are there any ways of preventing symptoms in the long run?
Firstly, what causes tech neck?
“Tech neck is simply neck pain caused by a repetitive postural strain,” says Anji Gopal, BackCare expert, Osteopath & Yoga Teacher. “It’s mostly pain in tired muscles and strained ligaments from slumping in the upper back and shoulders.” For instance, when we sit for too long or have our heads down and forward whilst looking at our phone or computer screen, “the upper back can slump, and then the head protrudes forward creating temporary imbalance in the neck and shoulder muscles.”
Effectively, when we look down at our phones or screens, says Founder of Pilates PT, Hollie Grant, “we put the back of the neck in a lengthened position and flatten out the natural curve of the cervical spine,” causing the head to actually weigh more, which then increases the effort to support the weight.
A combination of bad posture whilst sitting and bad desk adjustment is the main cause of “tech neck”, agrees UK registered Osteopath and acupuncturist, Boniface. “It is pain in the back of the neck and upper shoulder and can be associated with tension headaches (cervicogenic headaches), pain down the shoulder, elbows and wrists.”
How can you tell if you have it?
“If you notice that after a time of sitting (and it might not be that long) your neck and shoulder muscles are aching,” says Gopal, or if you are constantly rubbing your upper shoulders. Similarly, if you’re always struggling to find a comfortable position when sitting down and your head feels heavy, it’s very likely you have ‘tech neck’.
Another way of spotting if you have it? “When your shoulders become slightly tilted forward causing your head to drop and come forwards,” says Anisha Joshi, award-winning Osteopath and clinic owner. She adds: “it may be characterised by general discomfort in the lower neck, shoulders and upper back, or an increase in how often you experience headaches and reduced mobility or stiffness. These may well all be signs that you have tech neck.”
How can you treat ‘tech neck’ at home?
Get moving at home
“Notice when you start to feel strain in your neck muscles - and don't just ignore it!” says Anji Gopal, who warns this means your neck and shoulders are telling you they need movement and a good stretch. Similarly, don’t sit in the same position for too long and try get out of your seat every hour, at least.
Try breathing techniques
Another great tactic? Breathe! “Often, when we are busy on a screen and the stress from work, colleagues or the news can start a building of tension - the shoulders creep to the ears, the jaw tenses and we hold our breath,” says Gopal. Allowing yourself to take a moment to breathe can help alleviate feelings of stress and reduce tension in the neck and jaw.
Exercise and activity are key, both for avoiding and treating ‘tech neck’. “Ensure you are active and working on muscle tone and flexibility,” says Boniface. “Sitting is not a natural thing for us, we need to remember this and incorporate it as much as possible into our lives whether it's running, walking and dancing and engaging with our primal selves.”
Similarly, shoulder and back strengthening can also help to hold your neck up, however, it's important to speak to an expert first as you want to build strength safely and not aggravate the issue further.
How to prevent tech neck in the long run?
There are plenty of ways to prevent ‘tech neck’ in the long run - it can be as simple as taking regular breaks from your phone and laptop. Similarly, how you use them will impact the strain you put on your neck, too.
To prevent it, bring your screen up to your eye level. “If you draw a line from your ears down it should fall on the middle of your shoulder, not in front of it," says Boniface. “Raise your screens so that your horizontal gaze hits the middle of it.” He also adds that we should try and get a 90-degree angle between our foot and leg, and the knees and hips when we're sitting down at our desks.
The best exercises to try at home
Want to try some exercises in between all those Zoom calls? Here, Hollie Grant, founder of Pilates PT, shares her top exercise techniques for ‘tech neck’.
“Lie on your back with a small rolled up towel under your head, or a thin pillow, knees bent and feet hip width apart on the floor. Inhale and as you exhale imagine making your head as light as possible on your pillow, without actually lifting it off the pillow. Inhale to release, and exhale to repeat. Try to keep the neck long as you do this – eg don’t tuck the chin to the chest, and feel how the neck flexors kick in without having to lift the whole upper back off the floor like in crunches. Repeat 6-8 times.”
“Sit comfortably, in a nice neutral position. Think about the head, and where it sits in relation to the body. Inhale, and as you exhale imagine someone pulling on the back of your head, drawing your head back in line with your shoulders. On the inhale let the head drift forwards again. Repeat 8-10 times.”
“Sit comfortably, with your left arm by your side. Take your right hand to the top of your head, and gently pull the neck towards the right shoulder, keeping the left shoulder from popping up. The key here is only pulling the head to the side enough to get a stretch – eg don’t yank on the head aggressively. Hold for 30 – 50 seconds and then repeat on the other side.”
This was originally published on Glamour UK.