Our bodies reflect the way we live our lives. And for most of us, daily life is dominated by screen time. Computer and smartphone use strains not only our eyes, but also other muscles, especially the neck and shoulders. Poor posture is more than an aesthetic issue, it can cause real health problems such as migraines and shoulder pain.
“Tech neck” (or “text neck”, “nerd neck”) is a new term that describes the forward head posture we typically adopt when using our phones and other electronic devices. Of course, other activities such as fine detail work or carrying a heavy backpack can also cause us to lean our heads forward, but these days devices top the list.
We may imagine that it’s mostly teens and young adults who spend hours on their smartphones, but people of all ages are succumbing to “tech neck”—the head is pushed forward angling the neck downward, rounding the shoulders, and creating an overall slouching posture.
Pretty much everyone who has a smartphone is afflicted by tech neck to some degree. And we hardly notice this problem until we see an unflattering picture taken from the side. Thanks to social media and other digital addictions, people of all ages report spending an increasing number of hours online for recreation in addition to the hours we are required to perform computer tasks for work or study.
Although poor posture can arise from any kind of detailed work requiring attention and precision, as well as from a variety of other factors, in the modern world the smartphone is a ubiquitous ergonomic risk with postural consequences for billions of people.
Our bodies are meant for movement. Leaning your head forward to get a better look at something interesting or important is perfectly normal. The danger comes from spending long hours in a single static position.
Many people train their muscles on purpose. Exercise routines and exercise machines are designed to improve strength, endurance, and flexibility symmetrically in the various muscle groups of the body. But if you think about it, we regularly repeat certain motions and maintain certain positions every day as we go about our business, so we are constantly training our bodies to adapt to their surroundings without thinking about it. But our movements are not always symmetrical.
The head of an adult weighs about 11 lbs (5kg), like a medium-sized bowling ball. As you go about your day, this weight is balanced on top of 7 vertebrae supported by 20 muscles in the neck and shoulders. When you lean your head forward, these muscles have to hold the weight of your head and work to counter the effects of gravity. The further you lean forward, the greater the strain in the neck. A 15° tilt exerts the pressure of 27 lbs on your neck; a 30° tilt is like 40 lbs of weight to support.
When we stare at our devices, the head is always pushed forward and down. Holding this pose for prolonged periods of time influences the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that support the head. Over time, some muscles become elongated and weakened—the deep cervical flexors that run along the front of the cervical spine, the erector spinae that rotate and straighten the spine and prevent hunchback, and the shoulder blade retractors that keep the shoulders back and the chest open, while others are shortened and contracted—the suboccipital muscles that attach the base of your skull to the spine, the chest muscles, and the levator scapulae the surface muscles at the sides of your neck.
Some health problems caused by tech neck include:
Loss of range of motion is a common problem caused by tech neck. Test yourself: Can you slowly and easily turn your head to both sides and see behind you, without forcing your muscles? Now do some gentle exercises to free up your neck and shoulders and try again. The difference is often impressive!
Problems with the neck muscles can also affect the vertebrae, causing cervicogenic headaches and a whole range of other issues, especially in those prone to arthritis. Tech neck has also become a common trigger mechanism for chronic pain syndromes such as migraines and TMJ disorders.
Tech neck and poor posture are often related to smartphone use and our sedentary lifestyles, but, of course, there can also be other reasons for pain in the neck and shoulders. Some of the most common include arthritis, inflammation in the joints, and old or new bone fractures.
If you notice that neck pain flares up in the premenstrual or menstrual phase of your cycle, it may be that falling oestrogen levels lower your pain threshold making it more noticeable at these times.
Avoid static postures like your health depends on it because it does!
Take regular 10–15-minute breaks away from the screen every 40–60 minutes. Walk a little, drink some water. Not only will your body thank you, but you will find focusing much easier afterwards. Experiment to find the work/rest ratio that works best for you.
This is especially important for your work environment, but the places you spend your down time shouldn’t cause pain and spinal deformity down the line either. The two most important questions to ask are:
Your feet should either be resting on the floor or slightly elevated, and your chair should recline 25–30° and have good lumbar support. Leaning back and keeping your spine arched lessens the pressure on your neck and spine. Standing desks are also a good option.
When working on a computer, the screen should be about an arm’s length from your eyes, with the top edge of the screen at or slightly below eye level to avoid unnecessary strain.
It is worth investing in a good office chair. Many innovative designs are available to help you create an ergonomic office setting: adjustable chairs, standing chairs, “reverse” chairs with the back rest in the front, kneeling chairs, and others.
But even with a great a set-up you will need to take regular breaks and avoid sitting in one position for too long.
Creative “work-from-home” furniture solutions can be terrific, especially for those of us who struggle with ADHD or sensory issues, but health problems can arise in any surrounding when used for long periods of time without rest.
The best way to prevent or reverse the effects of tech neck is to make sure you do some stretching and exercise every day. For best results, include several different activities.
We all would benefit from a daily stretching routine. Even just a few basic stretches can go a long way. For tech neck, the most important movements are chest openers and gentle stretches and rotations for the neck and shoulders. Always start with a smaller range of motion and carefully move on to wider movements as your strength and flexibility improve.
Semi-circle rotations or simply tilting your head from side to side are both safe and effective ways to activate your cervical muscles.
For a gentle neck stretch, turn your head to look at one shoulder, then the other, then down, up, and diagonally down toward each of your armpits. Hold each position for a few seconds and repeat several times.
Chin tucks and any exercises where you actively push your head backwards are very effective for engaging the cervical flexors. Move your head backwards so it looks like you have a double chin or stand with your back against the wall and push your head against it for a few seconds. You should feel the muscles in the front of your neck working. To make it more fun you could put on some music and do a bit of head bobbing or “walk like an Egyptian” 70s style!
The prone cobra stretch will activate the shoulder blade retractors. Lie face down on the floor with your forehead resting on a folded towel. Raise your arms out to the sides, pull your shoulder blades together, lift your forehead slightly off the floor, and try to hold for ten seconds. Repeat five or ten times.
The corner stretch opens your chest muscles. Stand in a corner or doorway, rest one forearm against the wall or doorframe and step forward with the opposite foot; now lean forward until you feel a gentle stretch in your chest and shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
To release the levator scapulae, do a chin tuck then use one hand to gently pull your head toward the shoulder on the same side. You should feel a stretch in the outer neck muscles on the opening side. Repeat with the other side.
Strength training can greatly improve your posture. Start slowly, choose weights that are appropriate for your fitness level, and increase the challenge gradually. Going hard from the start can make things worse. Remember to work symmetrically—spend the same amount of effort on both sides of the body. Moderate strength training 2–3 times per week is ideal for your health.
Aerobic exercise is also good for the posture because it decreases stiffness and improves blood flow to the spine.
If you are experiencing real pain in your neck and shoulders, not just discomfort, consult a doctor before trying any new exercises.
Your body is your fundamental instrument for living. Take good care of it so you can live well and thrive!
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