‘Tech Neck’ Taking a Toll on Posture

Jan. 19, 2016

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It’s a tech world, and most people these days spend an average of two to four hours a day reading and texting on their smart phones—usually in a neck-bent position.

Over the course of a year, this adds up to something like 700 to 1,400 hours. The worst offenders are teenagers, who spend far more time on their devices.

Enter “tech neck,” the term coined to describe the position of the head and neck when the device is held at chest or waist level, eyes focused down on the screen.

Tech neck has gotten the attention of Evan Johnson, DPT, director of physical therapy at The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York. (To that end, Dr. Johnson was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article about good-posture tips.) He acknowledges that it’s not realistic to think people will give up their phones and other devices.

Instead, he recommends limiting time spent in texting position, and making a point of practicing good posture while looking at the screen. “How we hold our bodies while we interact with these devices is very much under our control,” says Dr. Johnson. “Posture re-education is key to decreasing the incidence of back, shoulder and neck pain.”

The average adult head weighs 10 to 12 pounds. In a neutral position—ears lined up with the shoulders, shoulder blades pulled in—there is relatively little stress on the neck. The effect of that weight on the spine increases exponentially, though, as the head falls forward.

According to one study, with the head tilted 15 degrees forward, the effect of the head’s weight is equal to 27 pounds. By 60 degrees forward, the effect can reach up to 60 pounds. And as that weight increases and the spine falls further out of alignment, undue pressure is added to the spine. Over time, improper posture can lead to neck pain and herniated discs. In more serious cases, surgery may be required.

If that’s not motivation enough to stand up straight, another study showed the benefits of proper posture to include increases in testosterone (the male hormone), decreases in cortisol (the stress hormone), increased feelings of power and increased comfort with risk taking.

Not to mention, there’s less chance of tripping over your feet while staring at your phone—and literally breaking your neck. (People with less-perfect posture displayed the opposite results.)

Our recommendations for fending off the negative effects of tech neck:

1. Take mini-breaks every 15 minutes or so, spending 30 seconds resting your eyes and stretching in place.

2. Every hour, take a break altogether by getting up for a quick walk or spending a few minutes on a different task to break things up.

3. Incorporate exercises into your daily routine, with the goal of strengthening the muscles around your neck and back. (See Dr. Johnson’s recommended postural exercises in our video series here.)

4. The close cousin posture-wise of walking-while-texting is the hours a day we spend working on a desktop or laptop computer. For stationary computer work, set yourself up in the optimal position with these tips for proper screen-time ergonomics.

Dr. Johnson also spoke recently at the North American Spine Society on “Mechanical Pain and Postural Syndromes: The iPhone Generation.”

Learn more about Dr. Johnson on his bio page here.

Image credit:“TextingOnBeach” © Pete/Flickr

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