When tech literally leads to a pain in the neck

When mom used to tell you to “sit up straight,” she likely had no idea how important that advice would become — and that’s all thanks to our reliance on smartphones and tablets.

Of particular concern is “tech neck,” which refers to the strain on your neck from hours spent looking at mobile devices.

text smartphone neck strain

“Tech neck” can trigger posture problems

One study suggests people spend two to four hours every day on electronic devices. That’s thousands of hours every year spent in a position that puts several extra pounds of stress on the neck.

Heavy users of handheld technology aren’t the only ones at risk. Other activities, from reading to driving, can strain your neck, as well.

Bill Boissonnault, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and Lori Thein Brody, physical therapist with UW Sports Medicine and Spine Center, share tips to give your neck a break.

Neck muscles struggle to support your head

The human head weighs an average of 12 pounds, and your body is designed to hold it up all the time. It’s actually the inclination, or angle, of your neck that worries many physicians.

Thein Brody says the problem — and the solution — lies in simple physics. The more you tilt your head down, the farther you’re separating the axis of rotation (in this case, the neck) from the mass of the limb (the head). This creates more work for the back of your neck as it tries to hold your head up.

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bowling ballBoissonnault uses the analogy of a bowling ball to break down the science. If you grab a 12-pound ball in one palm, and bend your elbow so the ball is close to your torso, it’s easy enough to hold for some time. But as soon as you start to straighten that elbow, and your hand moves further away from your body, the ball feels heavier.

Evolution and adaptation

It’s only been a decade or so since people have been using smartphones and tablets for several hours a day. Because the effects of maintaining the same posture for long periods of time can take years to manifest, researchers aren’t yet sure how this will affect people long-term, Boissonnault has serious concerns.

As seen in other instances of poor postures, muscles can fatigue and cause soreness and pain. If the muscles tire too much, he says, they may stop supporting the neck’s ligaments and joints altogether and put more weight on discs and joints, which in turn could increase the risk of arthritis.

Thein Brody wonders whether younger generations who start using electronics at an earlier age will essentially train their necks to become stronger. “Will humans evolve to have stronger neck muscles in response to this kind of load?” she asks.

How to straighten up and stay healthy

Don’t consider yourself addicted to electronics? If you don’t pay attention and straighten up once in a while, reading books or newspapers, driving and even cooking — repetitively, and over months and years — can put you at risk.

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“Any single posture for prolonged periods of time, a certain activity over and over … [it’s] the repetition that can get people into trouble,” Boissonnault says. He also urges extra awareness of “tech neck” for anyone with a previous neck injury, or whose work requires them to sit at a desk for long periods of time, with the head in a forward position.

So how can you be more careful to avoid straining your neck? There are a few things you can do.

  • Bring your device (or book) higher, and closer to your face, allowing your head and neck to stay erect.
  • Try using a hands-free bookstand, a music stand or a pillow. The key is to bring whatever you’re looking at closer to your face, and up to eye-level.
  • Prop a hand under your chin so your neck muscles are not supporting the weight of your head all alone.
  • Move around. These stretches and postures will get you unstuck:
    • Gently roll your head to its normal position, roll your shoulders and squeeze your shoulder blades together and down. o Keep an eye on your hips, too. Boissonnault says our posture often starts with the hips and lower back, so it’s important to stay balanced (keep your hips in a vertical line with the rest of your body), and not slump into the low back.
    • Tight pectoral muscles can pull your torso into a rounded posture. Try stretching your front with this exercise: face a corner with your elbows extended, grab the corner and lean in, leading with your chin.

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