Technology is a wonderful thing—most of the time. Unfortunately, our continued use and overuse of computers and cell phones can cause problems with the neck and spine. These issues, caused by repetitive strain and injury to the muscles and other soft tissue structures, are known as tech neck or text neck.
According to the American Osteopathic Association, this progressive issue, which can lead to disc degeneration and nerve complications, is being seen increasingly in patients who come in complaining of neck stiffness, shoulder tightness and/or a general ache in the upper body. Holistic practitioners are also seeing an increase in patients with neck stiffness, pain, headaches, and even numbness and tingling down the arms.
“All of this is postural related; when people slouch over and bend their necks at the cervical thoracic junction, it causes weakness in that area of the body,” explained Denise Fahrion, LMT-PA, BCTMB, MMT, PKT1, orthopedic manual therapist and owner of Collective Balance in Wexford. “There is a correct way to use tech devices, but most people are not aware of how to use them.”
According to Fahrion, while ‘weekend warriors’ often blame their soreness on out-of-work activities, it’s actually poor posture or a sedentary lifestyle during the work week that’s the likely culprit.
“I spend time educating my clients on corrective techniques during treatment sessions but also train them on things they can do when not in session with me,” Fahrion said. Advice includes keeping ears even with the top of the shoulders, and tucking the chin just a little bit instead of completely dropping it down to read a screen.
She notes that while the average head weighs 12 pounds, statistics show that if a person’s ears are three inches in front of their shoulders, the brain actually interprets that weight as 42 pounds that the muscles and central nervous system need to support.
If these problems aren’t treated early, damage can be irreversible. But caught in time, poor habits can be corrected.
“In the future, I expect we’ll see younger generations having neck dysfunction, or receiving diagnoses of degeneration in their necks far earlier than we see these problems now,” said Fahrion. “The people currently dealing with these issues weren’t born with a cellphone in their hands, yet they are still having problems despite the fact that this technology was introduced after their bodies were fully developed. Younger people, whose bodies and brains are still forming, are developing patterns that will lead to future issues.”
Prevention and Treatment
According to Fahrion, avoiding tech neck is all about proper posture.
“Imagine having a 2 x 4 connected from the back of your head to your tailbone; that is the position your spine should be in when you’re holding an electronic device,” she said, adding that those who knit, do any kind of fine detail work, or drive long distances for work can often find themselves demonstrating bad posture as well.
“You have to always be aware of your body position, and check yourself periodically,” she added. “Your ears should never be in front of your shoulders.”
She adds that other problems, such as rotator cuff pain or carpal tunnel-like symptoms, could also be caused by postural issues. “Many times the pain is not where the real problem is,“ she explained.
Fahrion, whose practice focuses on orthopedic manual therapy techniques, recommends that new clients work with her for three to four weeks in a row, which is a good amount of time to determine how the client’s body responds to treatment. Each session may vary from week to week and includes teaching postural awareness and strength training exercises that the client does as homework for the week.
“As one area of discomfort begins to get better, another issue may come to the surface; we have to work through layers of the onion to come down to the root cause,” said Fahrion.
Generally, after the initial sessions, and as the client begins to incorporate these lifestyle changes, their brains and bodies adapt and the pain and imbalance begin to heal. “It’s amazing to watch the discomfort and dysfunction melt away once people start retraining their brains to keep their bodies in the proper positions,” she added.