With around-the-clock access to smartphones, laptops, tablets and gaming devices, more Americans than ever before are hunching over screens. Yet, our bodies are not designed to spend so much time looking down. All of that screen time often results in neck pain that experts call “tech neck.”
“When people look down at cell phones, laptops or tablets, the natural forward curvature in the cervical spine is reversed,” says David A. Betts, DC, a chiropractor at Henry Ford Health. Over time, that constant forward bending motion reduces mobility and causes pain in the neck, back and shoulders.
Tech Neck Explained
The natural curvature (lordosis) in our neck is designed to take the weight of our 10- to 12-pound head and place it over structures of the spine designed to support it. Looking down puts the weight of your head over the discs of the spine. It also places tremendous stress on the muscles in the neck and shoulders.
“The discs are not designed to support constant pressure. Over time, they will begin to break down, resulting in early degenerative changes, early arthritis, pain and stiffness,” says Dr. Betts.
Here, he offers simple strategies to prevent — and treat — that damage.
- Sit tall: “Most people sit in the middle of their chairs and lean forward to their desks,” says Dr. Betts. A better option: Scooch your buttocks all the way to the back of the chair. Sit with your hips and knees at a 90-degree angle. This supports your low back. Place your screen at eye level, 18 to 25 inches away from your face. This discourages slouching and supports your head.
- Find support: Lumbar supports, head rests, functional garments (with special material designed to help you sit straighter), neck pillows and other tools can help straighten out your spine and make it more difficult for you to slouch.
- Take a break: Limit the time you spend sitting (or standing) in the same position, especially if you’re spending much of that time looking down. Dr. Betts’ advice: Get up and move as much as possible, at least every hour. Go for a walk. Climb a flight of stairs or just stand up and stretch.
- Stretch it out: If you have tech neck already, don’t fret. There are plenty of things you can do restore the curvature in your spine and loosen up your neck, back and shoulder muscles. A chiropractor or physical or occupational therapist can provide treatment and show you tailored exercises and stretches.
- Get evaluated: Whether you’re using a standing desk or a traditional workstation, consider meeting with an expert to get an evaluation. Not sure who to see? There are a number of resources, including YouTube videos, that can help you create a healthy workstation. Just keep this in mind: It’s physically impossible to sit correctly with a laptop, phone or tablet unless you use an external mouse and keyboard and place the screen at eye level.
Over time, looking down can even cause the neck’s natural curvature to point in the wrong direction. That puts a lot more stress and strain on the neck, shoulders and spine. And while exercise can help, the only way to alleviate tech neck is to ensure you carry yourself correctly as often as possible — and that means not looking down.
“While you can do a number of things to correct your posture — such as chiropractic adjustments, massage, exercises and stretches — your best bet to prevent tech neck is to seek treatment and adopt a healthier posture,” Dr. Betts says.
Dr. David Betts is a chiropractor specializing in sports medicine and seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Pierson in Grosse Pointe Farms and the Henry Ford Quick Care Clinic in downtown Detroit.