First off, I want you to look away from whatever digital device you’re reading this article on and analyse your current posture. Are you scrolling through your phone, laptop or tablet with your head down and bent forward? When was the last time you actually got up from your seat, or even worse, looked away from your screen before I told you to? Have I hit the nail on the head? If you feel a little attacked right now, then I hate to break it to you but you may be on the fast track to a condition called ‘tech neck’.
Tech neck, also referred to as ‘text neck’, is a 2022 repackaged version of an old issue: the repetitive strain of muscles while using digital devices—resulting in neck injuries, shoulder pain, stiffness and soreness. Broadly put, it’s a condition caused by holding your neck still for long periods of time.
While headaches, neck spasms, reduced mobility, jaw discomfort and pain between your shoulder blades, down your wrists and elbows are common symptoms, some complain of facing a hard time looking up after spending hours looking down into their devices. In severe situations, one could even experience tingling, numbness or weakness in their arms triggered by a pinched nerve in their neck.
But what does the weight of our heads have to do with tech neck? According to Doctor Daniel Riew, director of cervical spine surgery at the NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital, our necks aren’t built to withstand the type of force that comes with prolonged periods of strain. This is because the muscles in the back of our necks have to contract in order to hold our heads up. “The more you look down, the more the muscles have to work to keep your head up,” Doctor Riew said in an interview with Health Matters. “These muscles can get overly tired and sore from looking down at our smartphones, working on computers or looking down at our tablets all day.”
However, bad neck angles are not the only villains behind tech neck. Remember how we’re often told to correct our postures and “sit straight” when sitting at our desks? As per Doctor Riew, our childhood was a lie as this is incorrect advice. “When you sit with your back straight, you not only put a lot of force on the discs in your lower back, but the muscles in the back of the neck have to contract to hold the head up,” he said, adding that if you sit straight up for hours, you may actually end up with both back and neck pain instead. Tell that to the next person who says you shouldn’t slouch so much.
At a time when work from home has birthed a new generation of ‘Zoombies’, tech necks have evolved into an e-epidemic most of us with a digital device face today. You just rubbed your shoulders and sighed a while ago, am I right? According to Doctor Riew, the number of people suffering from the condition currently is at—surprise, surprise—100 per cent.
“Virtually anybody who spends a lot of time on a computer is eventually going to complain about it,” he explained. “Almost every patient that I see says that working on a computer usually makes their neck pain worse. It’s the rare person with a neck issue who says, ‘Oh yeah, I can work on a computer for hours every day and not have my neck bother me’.” With the smell of Vicks Vaporub wafting into the living room from my desk as we speak, it’s (concerningly) safe to say that I’m among the 100 per cent.
Apart from the pungent odour of pain-relief ointments, however, how can someone actually tell if their posture has succumbed to tech neck? According to osteopath and yoga teacher Anji Gopal, as noted by Glamour, neck and shoulder pain is one the basic symptoms you should look out for. Early signs of the concern also include your head feeling heavy as you fidget around to find a comfortable position while sitting down.
Another telltale is “when your shoulders become slightly tilted forward causing your head to drop and come forward,” explained Anisha Joshi, an award-winning osteopath. “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.”
A quick scroll through the 27,000 Instagram posts on #techneck will also plop you in a parallel land of a rising cosmetic concern. Head over to the closest mirror, tilt your head slightly upwards and inspect your neck. If you see lines running along the area from ear to ear, then congratulations, you—like me—won’t be able to unsee it for a while now. As noticed by cosmetic surgeons all around the world, these lines have significantly worsened with tech necks over the pandemic.
One of the most basic things you can do to confront tech neck while you’re reading this article is move around at home. “If you have a sedentary job, at least every 15 to 30 minutes, you should get up and walk around—even if it’s for a minute,” Doctor Riew advised. This will not only get your blood flowing but will help reset the position of your neck and your body. “Studies show that sitting for long periods is dangerous to your heart and that it leads to a shortened life span,” he urged.
Need a more long-term solution? Why not try switching up your workplace furniture while opting for a reclining chair with good lumbar support? And before you ask, no, asking your furniture retailer about the lumbar support offered in different seating options won’t magically transform you into a millennial. So do your research and analyse the ones recommended to you. Then take the furniture home and lean back as much as practical while you’re working to take pressure off your neck muscles.
“You can tell if you are leaning back adequately by doing the following: first, if you were to fall asleep in that position, your neck should fall backward. Alternatively, if you put your hand at the back of your neck, as you lean forward, you’ll find that the neck muscles contract and stiffen up. As you lean backward they will relax and get soft,” Doctor Riew continued.
Other tips also include propping your elbows with pillow support to keep your phone at eye level while scrolling through endless TikTok FYPs and incorporating exercises like scalene muscle stretches, head unweighting and spine retractions into your workout routine. Developing good posture and learning to recognise what that feels like are additional milestones to a healthy lifestyle in a tech-gilded age. So get up and moving already, because if tab overload doesn’t have your swollen butt yet, tech neck sure will.