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In an age with devices and screens everywhere, a common condition called “tech neck” has emerged and it’s here to stay. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, chances are you’ve experienced it and overlooked it as a minor discomfort with no long-term effects. Wrong! The long-term effects of tech neck include nerve damage that comes with degeneration of the neck vertebrae, and muscle strain from poor postural awareness.
While tech neck is not an official medical diagnosis, any professional who works in physical therapy, orthopedics or chiropractic care knows all too well that we’re seeing more and more of it every day. If left unaddressed, tech neck can lead to more serious symptoms, so it’s important to recognize the symptoms early and either seek treatment or change your behaviors that caused you to experience tech neck in the first place.
Although the laptop was designed to fit on the user’s lap, it rarely will be found there for any length of time because it becomes too uncomfortable to operate. It forces the operator to have a forward head and rounded shoulder posture with the wrists flexed. Owners of laptops quickly adapted and started putting the devices on desks, tables, or any hard surface that supported the computer – most of which are not at the appropriate height to avoid neck strain.
The tablet was designed for portability, reading, and recreation. By any measure, the device seems to have achieved those goals. However, there is a price to pay for such a handy piece of technology. It is difficult to hold a tablet for any length of time as they weigh close to two pounds. After using for an extended period of time, you will have to find a place to support the tablet or your neck gets sore.
Whether you’re using a tablet or a laptop, the device screen should be placed just below eye level. To achieve this with a tablet, you’ll need to invest in a case that also serves as a stand. If a laptop or tablet is placed too low, it can lead to lower neck muscle strain and tension headaches as muscles strain to support the head. If the devices are held too high, it can lead to upper neck muscle strain and shoulder fatigue.
The smartphone solves the dilemma of size and weight and can be held in one hand, so your fingers don’t cramp. The problem is that the user is constantly looking at it from the right or left side causing muscle asymmetry in the neck and shoulders. Users tend to look down at it more than they should, leading to poor posture. A recent study found that people are on their phones for over two hours a day. If the neck is kept flexed, tilted, and rotated to one side for an extended period of time, it will lead to muscle, bone, and nerve injuries that can lead to permanent dysfunction without treatment.
Even though the screen is smaller, placement around eye level is still your best bet. When possible, place the phone on a stand and then on a desk or table – and if you need to put it on top of a box or other surface to ensure it’s at the right height, that’s a great strategy, too. And while it’s easier said than done when we’re on the go, try to limit using your cell phone for extended reading or texting.
The smartwatch has the same potential problems as the cell phone, and some other issues due to its placement on the wrist. In the past, a watch is something you glanced at several times in a day. Smartwatches, however have more functionality – they play music, dictate messages, track steps, check emails, all while also helping us keep track of the time. Unfortunately, they force the user to look down towards one wrist for more than a glance. This can ultimately lead to muscle asymmetry, stenosis, or cervical disc disease. These conditions are even more likely when combined with the use of other mobile devices.
If you’re using your smartwatch to simply tell time, track your steps or glance at what’s next on your to-do list, you’re probably fine. If you’re glancing at it every few seconds to check email, text or perform more advanced functions, you’ll be more prone to problems. When you do need to glance at it, lift it up to eye level, rather than looking down at it.
When looking down at any device, tuck your chin, which helps to elongate the posterior neck muscles, and keeps the head in neutral alignment with the trunk.
We then teach the patient to do neck extensions periodically during the day to ease muscle strain. To do a neck extension, simply sit back in a firm chair and extend your neck back as far as possible for 4 x 4 seconds in pain-free range only.
Intermittent shoulder rolls are a great way to stretch out and avoid neck pain. This exercise helps keep the scapulae parallel to one other. A shoulder roll is simple – just bring both shoulders up, back then down 4 x 4 second holds.
If you’re experiencing sharp neck pain, icing for ten minutes is recommended. Heat the neck for dull pain or stiffness for 10 minutes whenever necessary.
If you’re experiencing tech neck symptoms and you’re not sure what to do, WakeMed Physical Therapy is here to help. Our PT staff are professionally-trained to evaluate posture and ergonomic problems, and we work with patients to develop an individualized treatment plan to help relieve your neck pain. We have offices in Apex, Cary, Clayton, Raleigh and North Raleigh.
Jay Goodman PT, SCS has been treating orthopedic patients for over 32 years and he has noticed a trend of neck injuries increasing across the age spectrum. Mr. Goodman works for WakeMed at Raleigh Medical Park.
3000 New Bern Ave.
Raleigh, NC 27610