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What a Pain in the (Tech) Neck

Last updated: April 11, 2023

Tech neck may seem like a harmless concern, but it can have serious long-term consequences, especially for today’s young people, who are the first generation growing up using these handheld devices.

If your neck aches by the end of the day, your favorite device could be the cause. “Text neck syndrome” — or “tech neck” — has become commonplace as we spend more time hunched over our cellphones, tablets and laptops.

“Looking down at our phones, tablets, computers and other devices for long periods of time can cause pain and soreness in our neck, shoulders and back,” says Dr. Mac Weninger, a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Specialist (physiatrist) with ThedaCare Orthopedic Care. “It’s a problem anyone who uses mobile devices may experience.”

Tech neck can cause inflammation, stiff necks, neck spasms, pain in the back and shoulders, and headaches. Left untreated, it can wear on the discs in the cervical spine, leading to bulging or rupturing discs that cause pain, numbness and weakness.

“Tech neck may seem like a harmless concern, but it can have serious long-term consequences, especially for today’s young people, who are the first generation growing up using these handheld devices,” Dr. Weninger says.

An Emerging Problem

The National Institutes of Health calls tech neck “an emerging 21st-century syndrome that can lead to cervical degeneration.” It also noted that many people spend hours per day hunched over devices with their heads flexed forward. Estimates show Americans typically spend five to seven hours per day on mobile devices, and that usage level is likely to increase.

The human head weighs between 10 and 12 pounds when positioned normally above the neck.

“Tilting your head downward, such as when gazing at your phone to send a text or surfing social media sites, can put anywhere from 27 to 60 pounds of force on the neck, depending on the angle at which you hold your head,” Dr. Weninger says. “That’s adding a lot of physical stress to the spine, neck, shoulders and all the muscles of your upper torso.”

The most common symptoms of tech neck include:

  • Headaches
  • Neck and upper back muscle tension
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems
  • Tingling
  • Numbness or weakness in the hands
  • Rotator cuff tenderness

Treating Tech Neck

Dr. Weninger favors finding the cause of any new ache or pain and modifying contributing behaviors rather than just treating the symptoms. He offers these suggestions to reduce the likelihood of developing tech neck:

  • Hold your phone/tablet at eye level as much as possible.
  • Take regular breaks from any extended time on phones, tablets, gaming devices and computers. Arch your back, roll your shoulders and do stretches to loosen up tight neck muscles.
  • Limit screen time during non-work/school hours.
  • Use a standing desk, when possible.
  • Be aware of your sitting posture and correct bad habits.
  • Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your back leaning backward slightly.
  • Get up from sitting while working or studying at least once per hour.
  • Practice some yoga poses regularly. For example, downward dog, cobra, cat/cow, child’s pose and seated twist pose will relieve tension in the muscles of the upper torso.
  • Get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week.
  • Perform resistance training and strengthening of your rotator cuff to stabilize the shoulder joint.

For most of the activities we do, we hold our arms in front of our bodies. This includes lifting, carrying and reaching.

“It is important to strengthen muscles in the upper back. This helps restore balance between the forces pulling the shoulder forward and backward,” Dr. Weninger says.

If your neck and shoulder pain persist despite trying ergonomic modifications and strengthening and stretching exercises, you should seek care.

Treatment often starts with conservative options such as physical therapy and medications to manage the pain. Other options include injections and — in severe cases — surgery. Your care team will discuss options with you to support your health needs, Dr. Weninger says.

“Our mobile devices give us access to education, information and entertainment, which adds to our quality of life,” he says. “As with most equipment, there’s a proper way to use it. Establishing good habits in how we hold our devices and how much time we spend on them will go along way toward making sure we embrace their benefits.”

Have pain in the tech neck?

Visit Orthopedic Walk-in Care or call 920-831-5050 for an appointment.

Tags: back pain headache neck pain shoulder pain Tech neck

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