The digital age has brought us so many wonderful options for working, learning, and playing. With it has come a whole new series of physical ailments. While many of these ailments may have existed in a similar form in the past, the manner in which we develop their pain has changed. The technological age has offered a new set of circumstances for us to consider regarding pain symptoms.
Tech neck often refers to the pain that we experience as the result of repetitive use of hand-held electronic devices. However, tech neck also refers to neck pain that may develop from the use of computers and televisions when not used ergonomically. Tech neck pain that repeatedly shows can lead to long-term pain conditions.
Hunching forward with the shoulders scrunched up does not lend well for good neck alignment. In order to see our screens better, we often crane our necks into an unnatural position. Whether or not this is done in order to view a phone, computer screen, or television will depend on the person.
However, the results are still often the same when it is done for an extended period of time or with any regularity. Tech neck may also include other types of pain in the body. So, what does tech neck look like and what can we do about it?
The first step in preventing pain is understanding a bit about how it may originate. What can we do to help prevent it? Can it be reversed and if so, how?
The focus of your work should be at eye level. Notice that if you must look downward this visual action draws the neck down as well. Arrange your workspace to fit your body. If you complete a large amount of your work at a desk, ensure that you create your space to accommodate your height and arm length. You should be able to rest your wrists level with your elbows in a relaxed position. If you spend time with smaller devices in an ‘on the go’ manner, work to keep them at eye level as much as possible.
When you find yourself having to look down, you may notice that you also bring the rest of your body forward to view the screen more directly. Placing your chin into your hand may seem like something that you are doing because you are stumped or uncertain what to do next in your work. However, we often are actually doing this in an effort to more easily see the text or information that is below our natural line of vision.
The human neck retains the unique ability to connect all five of the human sense with the rest of the body. We read with our eyes (unless reading in Braille), but we use our hands to maneuver the item from which we are reading. It is not much of a conscious thing, but we turn slightly in many directions as we go from page to page in a book.
We eat with our mouths, but we use our hands to the food and bring it to our taste buds. Try doing this without the slightest bend in your neck. How well can you see your plate? We hear with our ears, but we turn our necks to hear the random loud sound of a siren. Driving a car without the ability to see where danger may be hiding would not be safe.
We smell with our noses, but we interact with the flowers in the garden through our hands and eyes as well as our noses. Even bending over at the waist or down into a squatting position changes the placement of the neck. Then to take that final sniff we often crane our necks out for a full swig of each plant’s unique scent.
The neck’s design is meant to help us complete all of these tasks. We may not realize it but if we were not able to bend our necks up and down, left and right, we would be greatly impeded with many of our daily tasks. The neck was designed to bend, twist, and turn. However, it was meant to do this gently and for small amounts of time at each portion.
Practicing good posture begins by knowing what this actually means. Place the screen of your device or computer in a position that allows you to look straight ahead – not down. Your screen should be easily visible at eye level. Your arms should rest comfortably in front of you with your elbows bent and relaxed. You should be able to rest your back in a way that allows you to keep your spine straight.
These things may be more difficult if you are not sitting at a desk. Consider placing a pillow on your lap to help hold up your arms if you plan to use a device for more than a few moments and are not at a desk. Do not rest on your back with your book or device in your hands for extended periods of time. This alters the circulation to your arms and hands and can cause numbness and pain.
It is hard to break old habits. However, this is an important one. Taking care of the mechanisms that allow our body to function is important for long-term use of them. Taking the time to ensure that we are practicing safe posture means that we find a way to remind ourselves to review the position of our body throughout the day. Place a sticky note on your screen for a bit to help you remember. Tie a string to your phone for a week and when your kids ask you what it’s for you can have them to help you remember to “unscrunch” yourself.
We may find ourselves so focused on our work that we do not even notice that our body has become altered from the position in which we began. Whether by enjoyment or through direct focus on a task, we easily begin to slouch and draw the neck and spine into an awkward position. Add to this the intensity of which we are working and we simply top the poor body position with pressure on the neck and spine. The result? Intense pressure is placed on the spine while it remains placed in a very unhealthy posture.
The general rule that we hear is to look at something that is at least 20 feet away every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds. Choose a tree or favorite image and try to observes something new about it several times a day. Maybe a new species of bird will catch your eye and bring you a smile when you look in that direction. To add variety, close your eyes for a moment instead of looking away from your screen.
Take a full 20-minute break from your screens about once an hour. This may be difficult if your day job requires you to work at a computer all day. Try to find ways to break up the time that also allow you to complete other desk related tasks. Try switching to another task on the screen for a bit if you simply cannot switch to a non-screen activity for a full 20 minutes. Do anything you can to give yourself plenty of vision breaks during the day. Your eyes will thank you, but so will your neck.
If you find yourself forgetting to stop and look up or take a break, consider these options:
Consider a tablet holder if you spend a significant amount of time viewing small screens well below eye level while at a workspace. As you raise your face to better view the screen, you relieve pressure on the cervical spine. This brings the neck into a more natural and relaxed position.
This concept works well for all types of reading material. If you find yourself with pain that seems to develop from the use of non-digital reading material, try to remember to hold your book or magazine at eye level. You may feel a little strange at first. Just consider yourself an “advanced member of society” as you seek to enjoy your book or device in a pain-free manner.
This takes the pressure off of your neck and shoulders and helps your body to relax. Having a physical place to rest your head also helps to remind you where your body should be to maintain good posture, especially when long hours must be spent on a task. Instead of scrunching, rest your head behind you. Be sure to sit up straight in a comfortable relaxed position. This will relax your spine and help you remember to stay in a spine-friendly position.
This is good for your brain and body. If you find yourself stuck on a work task that may be a good time to do a few neck stretches. Often times once we allow ourselves to focus on something else, the puzzle that we have just been trying to solve becomes clear and we can once again plow through our work. A win for the brain. A win for the neck muscles.
Here is a list of a few basic stretches that can be complete anywhere:
Neck Rotation Stretch. Direct your chin to the left and gently bring it upward. Hold for fifteen to twenty seconds. Switch sides. Repeat three to five times daily or as desired.
Chin Tuck. Gently bring your chin toward your chest. Most people may not actually touch their chest. That is okay. Hold for five to ten seconds. Repeat eight to ten times daily.
Neck Side Stretch. Gently tilt your head to the left as you bring your left ear toward your shoulder. Hold for twenty seconds. Switch sides. Repeat three to five times daily or as desired.
Be gentle with yourself as you enjoy these stretches. Do not hurry or move about radically as you do them. Do not force your body into positions that bring further pain.
Tension in the body puts pressure on the spine, discs, and muscles. This increases the risk of pain symptoms and increases strain. Our bodies often ‘absorb’ the strain that we take on during the day. Reminding ourselves to physically allow the muscles to relax goes a long way in helping the body to release unwanted pressure on joints.
Chiropractic care works to help minimize problems in the body before they develop into something more serious. Proper neck and spinal care mean that we are doing what we can to prevent conditions from developing. Chiropractic treatments offer direct care to the neck and spine for the sake of retaining the correct alignment and minimizing the risk of pain and injury due to tech neck.
Tech neck treatments may include help reviewing your work or entertainment environment, joint or disc care, and a review of musculoskeletal pain. Chiropractic care can help with prevention and recovery of tech neck discomfort. Each person’s situation is slightly different. Be sure to inquire if there may be any specific considerations for how you may be using your personal and work technological equipment.
Taking these tips and putting them all together at once may seem daunting if you spent a lot of time with your screens. However, small implementations over time can make a big difference. Start by working to implement a few new things at a time.
Tech neck prevention is possible! Using new technologies means new opportunities. It also means that we must be willing to take on the new habits and practices that will keep us healthy and safe for long-term use of those technologies.
Work on getting each of the steps right for you, your body, and your situation in a way that actually helps you prevent and overcome tech neck discomfort. No need to rush through life. These devices are not going anywhere without us!
Dr. Brent Wells has been a trusted chiropractor since moving his family from Oregon to Alaska back in 1998 and founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab – B.S. from Univ. of Nevada, Doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College, volunteer for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Foundation, and member of the American Chiropractic Association. As a chiropractor his focus is on family, including his 3 children and wife of 20+ years, his clinics, and ongoing education.