Collectively, Americans check their smartphones over 8 billion times per day. And young adults age 18 to 24 send or receive an average of 109.5 text messages on a typical day. While this constant use of electronic devices may be great for keeping in touch and staying informed, it’s not great for the human body.
Having your head bent over a smartphone, tablet or laptop for hours on end can lead to a repetitive strain injury known as “tech neck” (or “text neck”).
The Mechanics of Tech Neck
When your head is bent forward over your device, it can put a lot of pressure on your neck. An adult’s head weighs 10 to 12 pounds when it’s in the neutral position, according to a study published in Surgical Technology International. As the head tilts forward, the force on the neck increases. If your head is tilted forward 45 degrees, the force increases to 49 pounds. At 60 degrees forward — like when you’re looking at your phone with your chin to your chest — it’s 60 pounds. That’s a lot of pressure to put on the structures of your neck.
Similarly, a study published in Ergonomics looked at the biomechanics of the head and neck during tablet computer use. The authors found that the mechanical demand on the neck muscles during tablet use while seated with a bent neck was three to five times greater than with a seated neutral posture. There was less demand on the neck muscles if the tablet was propped up in a high position.
“When you’re sitting up straight, you’re balancing the weight of your head above the neck. But when you lean forward, you’re moving the weight of the head in front of the neck. This puts stress on the joints and ligaments on the back side of the neck and squeezes the discs,” explains Douglas Krebs, DC, FACO, Cert. MDT, owner and chiropractic orthopedist at Chicago Spine and Sports. “Long term, there is the possibility of increased risk of disc herniation and instability in the neck.”
Start with an exam to identify the problem, Krebs says, and then discuss possible treatment options including the McKenzie Method (which involves repetitive motion or finding a position that makes the patient feel better, which the patient then incorporates at home), education on removing the negative behavior, use of a lumbar roll for back support (which makes it hard to slouch), manual therapy and special exercises.
“A physical therapist can provide an individualized approach that incorporates ergonomic assessment, exercise/movement prescription and hands-on manual therapy as part of a comprehensive approach to decreasing pain and increasing function,” says Bridgid Ellingson, PT, DPT, OCS, of Lakeview Physical Therapy. Physical therapists can also make referrals to specialists for other areas, like poor sleep, stress or poor nutrition, she says.
Change your working environment to allow for a greater variety of postures and more movement. “For the office worker, this may mean getting a standing desk, an ergonomic chair or a foot rest,” Ellingson says. “I generally advise a mixture of sitting and standing.”
Saving Your Own Neck
You don’t have to completely shun your electronic devices to protect your neck. The following measures can help.
- Stop and take a short break every 15 or 20 minutes, then move around and change your body and head positions.
- Set your computer monitor at eye level. Raise your smartphone to eye level rather than lowering your head. And get a tablet holder to elevate your device close to eye level.
- Use voice-to-text as often as possible.
- When you’re using a device, spend as much time standing as you do sitting.
- Consult a physical therapist, chiropractor or other healthcare professional for guidance and exercises.