How to help the pain of ‘Tech Neck’

-Jan 24, Caroline Blight, Health -

Even if you don’t have a desk job, hours spent peering at your phone or tablet is a pain in the neck – literally. ‘Tech neck’ is the name commonly given to the neck and shoulder pain caused by spending too much time hunched over a computer or smartphone because of the position it causes our spines to sit at.

Research has found that on average adults spend more than two hours a day looking just at their smartphone and one in 20 admit to looking at their phone for an incredible six hours a day or longer. The craning position we adopt when doing so means the weight of our heads is not fully supported, causing strain and an imbalance in the muscles in our necks. 

When the neck droops forward and down as check that email, send a text, or post that photo to social media, the position puts up to an astounding 60 pounds of pressure on the upper cervical spine – that is basically the same as balancing a small child on your neck.

At the same time sales of laptops have soared, which also create a hunching position when used as opposed to more flexible desktops, means that even more of our time is spent in one of the most damaging positions for our spine.

“Tech neck is a lot more common than you’d believe, I’d say 90% of the clientele I work with have some sort of aggravation in their body caused by working behind a desk for prolonged periods of time,” says posture expert and therapist Joe Mitton, owner of MittFit. “While working on a computer for hours on end it’s very easy to forget posture and how to sit properly leading to you slouching or slightly hunched over.”

Why is sitting and using technology for so long bad?

When we are sitting and using screens we are rarely in a position which is health for our spines. “Sitting at a desk isn’t what our bodies were designed to do,” explains Joe. “It can cause us to hunch over which restricts thoracic extension leading to tension throughout the shoulder region as well as potential pain while breathing and over time, it can leave lasting changes in our posture which then affects other areas of our body.” And even when we are sitting on the sofa in a Whatsapp marathon, we are also adopting a position which is far from good for us. Added to this we tend to sit still for longer as we are absorbed in what we are doing, it all adds up to be detrimental to our neck, shoulders and upper back. In the long term some researchers are discovering permanent disfigurations of the spine and in the short term Joe says you will certainly feel uncomfortable. “Lots of pain and discomfort is a the usual result of this kind of bad posture over time,” he adds. “Especially in between the shoulder blades, around the neck and potentially even headaches.”

How can I help correct the damage with movement?

Keeping moving and correcting your posture is key to helping with the pain of tech neck and preventing it getting any worse. Try and make sure you don’t sit in one position for more than 20mins at a time and you get up and move – including things like shoulder rolls and shrugs to release pent up tension. 

The pressure of incorrect posture causes the muscles between the shoulder blades to extend while the muscles around the front of the shoulders contracts. This leads to the classic rounding as the weight of the head pulls forward. Strengthening the muscles between the shoulder blades can help, try activating them by hooking a resistance band around a table leg, sitting in a chair in the centre of the band wrap the ends of the band around your hands. Now using your shoulder blades, pull out the ends of the band so they are in a v shape on either side of your body. You should feel the muscle between your shoulder blades working. Repeat 10 times a couple times a day. It’s also worth stretching out the muscles in the front of our shoulders/body. Lift your arms to almost shoulder height, now bend at the elbow so you have an L-shape. In a door frame simply place your forearms on the frame and lean forward. You should feel the stretch in your front shoulder/arm pit.  

There are several yoga positions which can help release tension from the effected muscles such as Cobra, Downward Dog and Sphinx pose. These poses lengthen the front muscles of the neck, realign the shoulders and upper thoracic spine, and help restore a natural curve in the spine while opening the shoulders.

How can I help ease the pain without drugs?

The tension and discomfort which comes with tech neck can lead many to reach for the painkillers. But while these will help in the short term they won’t solve the bigger problem of tense muscles. “Heat helps to relax the muscles so they can resume normal functioning,” advises Joe. “It helps to get blood flowing through the area which can ease muscles, dilate blood vessels and promote blood flow to the area which helps soft tissue move more freely.” Try a hot water bottle or heat pad. Such is the demand for neck and shoulder pain relief due to the amount of people suffering, Deep Heat has even invented Muscle Rescue Neck and Shoulder Pain Relieving Heat Patches and cream. “You can put the patch on underneath clothing and leave it there for up to 8 hours or the warming cream is a great go-to product for when you’re out and about or need some instant relief,” advises Joe.

There are also posture corrector products which help correct your posture by pulling your shoulders into the position they should be. These usually hook around each armpit, over the front shoulder and meet at the back where the shoulder blades are. For some they offer instant relief but should initially be used in ever increasing amounts of time as you get used to the feeling. They should over time help you correct your posture without the need to wear them as you will ‘know’ how you should stand and sit through re-educating your body.

And most importantly – be aware of the problems your technology involvement is creating. Try and rest your head straight against the back of the sofa when texting and move your screen up rather than head down. Attach a screen and mouse to your laptop whenever you can so you can use it more like a desktop. Good posture costs nothing but bad will leave you in a world of pain.

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