If you’ve ever felt like there aren’t enough hours in the day, you might want to blame your digital devices. According to a Nielsen Company audience report from last year, adult Americans spend over 10.5 hours a day staring at smartphones, tablets, personal computers, and more, spending about a quarter of their work week on screen time. Experts have a sneaking suspicion the reliance on tech isn’t just cutting into productivity and social time; it’s literally becoming a pain in the neck.
According to the 2009 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), about 15 percent of adults reported pain in their neck area over a three-month period. One recent study found that Americans spent $87.6 billion addressing neck and lower back pain in 2013, nearly three times what we spent two decades ago. That makes neck and lower back pain among the top, as well as costliest, health concerns we face.
Some researchers say neck pain is tied to our growing dependence on digital devices. Tech neck (or “text neck,” as The Washington Post called it) is just one of the “digital disabilities” many of us face in the 21st century.
What Causes “Tech Neck”?
“Tech neck” refers to the pain many people feel in their neck and spine after looking down at their phones, computers, e-readers, or tablets. But what does looking down have to do with a sore neck?
Remember when Jerry Maguire’s precocious pal claimed, “the human head weighs eight pounds?” That’s a modest estimate, it turns out. An adult human head actually weighs closer to twelve pounds. And it can feel like even more.
Kenneth K. Hansraj, M.D., chief of spinal surgery at New York Spinal Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, found that when your neck is bent forward and down — as it is when you’re texting, typing, or sneaking a YouTube video instead of working — the pressure can increase a lot. Tilting your head forward just 15 degrees increases the burden on your neck to that of a 27-pound load, and bending to 60 degrees ratchets the pressure up to 60 pounds.
Is Tech (or Text) Neck a New Phenomenon?
Some experts believe that the so-called “tech neck” is just the same old neck pain humans have experienced for eons.
“There’s no evidence that any long-term structural changes result to the neck alignment as a result of prolonged texting,” says Raj Rao, MD, chairman of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at George Washington University. “There is, however, no question that prolonged abnormal postures, such as the forward bent-over position, can fatigue the neck muscles and make them more prone to pain.”
Joshua Levin, MD, a spine physiatrist at Stanford Health Care, agrees. “It’s most likely the same thing that’s been around for years,” he says. “It’s always good to exercise and strengthen the muscles around the spine, regardless of what term we call it.”
Whether or not it’s a new phenomenon, some in the field, including Oakland physical therapist Liz Duncanson, are convinced it’s a problem. “Text neck is totally a thing,” she says. “Just about everyone with a habitual forward head posture is at risk for text neck when they add a screen in front of their face.”
Case in point: teens. While younger Americans are actually spending slightly less time staring at their screens than their adult counterparts (nine hours a day, according to a report by Common Sense Media), a small study published in the journal Manual Therapy found that 35 of 70 high school age participants reported having neck pain. Upon examination, researchers found that this group of adolescents had significant limitations in their head and neck posture and mobility compared to a control group. According to experts, all those hours spent texting, Tweeting, and Snapchatting could be creating the almost constant pull on neck muscles that’s causing the pain and compromised mobility.
Tech to Treat Text Neck
Ironically, some tech companies are capitalizing on text neck by developing apps and devices that promise to improve posture and alleviate pain. Opter, a California-based health tech company, will soon release a necklace device called Opter Pose, designed to detect poor posture and alert wearers to their slumped stature using a subtle vibration.
“It’s clear that mobile phone or computer use is associated with a certain kind of awkward posture for the body,” says Chalisa Prarasri, Opter’s CEO. “It’s also clear that awkward postures increase your risk for neck and back pain. The studies that have been done so far do suggest that there is a higher rate of neck pain among people in the workplace — even more so in females — which suggests that something about the work environment is contributing to neck pain.”
Another wearable device is Alex, which attaches over your ears, like glasses, and rests on the back of your neck where it tracks your posture. When it detects that your head is out of alignment for a few minutes, it vibrates to let you know.
The Text Neck Indicator is a mobile app that displays a green light when your phone is tilted at an “acceptable” angle — at least 65 degrees from horizontal — and a red light, beep, or pulse when it is not. The makers of this app claim that it will help keep your ears over your shoulders and prevent the pain from tilting too far forward.
What You Can Do
Duncanson offers some basic tips that don’t require any additional tech. “The next time you are in front of a screen, ask yourself if you could balance a lightweight paperback book or brochure on your head,” she says. If the balancing act prevents you from seeing your screen, bend your elbows with your wrists straight and move the screen up to your field of vision. “Does it feel like you’re in finishing school? Then you’re doing it correctly,” she says.
When you finally tear yourself away from your phone or workstation, a few good floor stretches can make a world of difference too. Duncanson recommends lying down with your spine parallel to the floor on top of a rolled blanket or foam roller. Relax your arms down so they comfortably touch the floor and find a gentle stretch point in the front of your shoulders and chest. Relax and breathe into your belly for 6 to 10 slow, deep breaths.
Rao’s advice is even simpler: “Get off your phone and take a walk, preferably outside,” he says. “If you have to text, limit the amount of time you spend texting and keep your messages short. Make sure that your body posture is good when not on the phone and walk with your chest high.”
If all of that sounds daunting, it may be best to start small. Taking routine breaks from your devices may alleviate some of your pain and actually make you more productive. That’s because studies have shown that our brains can only focus for a certain amount of time before we need a distraction. Over the years, researchers have examined how long we can stay alert and focused by investigating an internal cycle called the ultradian rhythm (most often used to reference the 90- to 120-minute sleep stage cycles). According to experiments, like those conducted by the United States Army research institute, the ultradian rhythm seems to apply to cycles of concentration too, with 90 minutes being a consistent sweet spot for most people’s attention spans.
So how long, and how often, should you take a break? US government guidelines suggest "several, short rest breaks (micro breaks or rest pauses)," without specific time intervals or frequency. However, Canada recommends a five-minute break every hour, while in the UK it’s a 5- to 10-minute break every 50-60 minutes, with short, frequent breaks better than occasional, longer breaks.
With this in mind, you could start by scheduling a five-minute break every hour you spend glued to a screen and see how that feels on your neck and your mind. If you’re racking up 10-plus hours on your digital devices like most Americans, those breaks will add up, potentially leading to more time in your busy day, greater productivity, and some much-needed relief from aches and pains.