Just 10 years ago, no one was looking down at their phone or tablet as much as they do now in the Age of Smartphones. These devices house all our addictions—from Instagram to texting, Netflix to email—and most of us can’t get enough. However, your neck may have had enough.
“Tech neck” is a thoroughly modern problem, and it’s a phrase you might be hearing more and more. According to Stephen Liu, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor UCLA School of Medicine Dept of Orthopedic Surgery and Founder of IFGfit, a line of activewear meant to improve posture by aligning your spine, the term “tech neck” refers to “stress on the neck caused by individuals having their head held forward and tilted downward for a prolonged and excessive period of time” as they use electronics.
Whereas the average head weighs about 10 pounds upright, research has shown just a 15-degree head tilt can cause the equivalent of 27 pounds of force on the back of the neck. By 60 degrees, your neck feels like it’s holding up 60 pounds of weight. Day after day of this behavior “negatively impacts our spinal cords,” says Liu.
Symptoms of tech neck include poor posture, shoulder pain, tightness and loss of motion, neck pain and stiffness, frequent headaches and neck and back muscle spasms, says Liu. Doctors usually treat older patients’ neck pain and related issues, but younger patients are starting to visit their physicians complaining of neck and spine problems. “Teenagers are beginning to develop hunchbacks and scoliosis at a young age due to their constant device use causing them to bend over for hours at a time,” says Liu.
Whether young or old, someone with tech neck may have longterm ramifications. “This poor head and shoulder posture lead to excessive muscle tension, stress, and fatigue,” says Liu. “As extra weight is being placed on the neck and spine, initially an individual may only feel neck and back pain, though over time muscle and joints are worn down leading to chronic neck pain, headaches, nerve irritation, loss of hand strength, hunched back, and curved spine, he explains.
It’s critical to think about how you look at screens, and if you can make changes to avoid tech neck. Here are Liu’s top tips.
Work on your posture. It’s hard to keep posture so top of mind, but try it. Sit with your shoulders back, align your neck with your spine, and keep devices as close to eye level as you possibly can.
Strengthen your neck and shoulder muscles. When you hit the gym, some might not think about neck and shoulders much—but you should. Having strong neck and shoulder muscles can help you overcome poor posture and the pain of tech neck. Some exercises to try include one-arm rows, dumbbell shrugs, and the reverse fly. Liu says rowing, squats, yoga, and swimming will also help strengthen these muscles through movement.
Do quick exercises throughout your day. Don’t sit at your desk or in a car for hours, looking at a device. Liu recommends getting up for a stretch hourly, at least (although do it more, if you feel tense!) “Consistently engaging your neck muscles through nodding, rotating your head and moving your head side to side and deep breathing” are good ways to avoid the strain of tech neck, says Liu.
Although many are developing spine issues related to device usage, the good news is that it’s easy to counter tech neck with regular exercise and mindful movement each hour. Start today.