Is Your Device Killing Your Neck?

For many of us, the short answer is, “Yes.”  On average, Americans spend nearly half of their day interacting with digital media of various forms.  Think about your day.  How often do you find yourself bent over, absent mindedly looking at your phone to kill time.  I certainly know I’m guilty.  Then think of the amount of time you spend actually texting, searching for directions, sending emails or staring at your computer at work.  It all adds up.  While “killing” may be a bit of an over-statement, there are very real consequences to all of this screen time.   

Think of what happens when you look down at your phone or tablet.  Let’s be honest, very few of us hold our devices at eye level.  More often, we hold them in front of our chests near where our ribs come together or even down by our laps.  In order to look down, we have to bend our necks and upper backs forward and our shoulders roll inward.  Our head comes out in front of it’s normal center of gravity and tips downward.  Sitting at a computer isn’t all that much better.  When most of us sit at a desk, we end up slouching, with our chins leaning forward toward the screen.

Let’s take a look at what happens when you sit or stand with your head too far forward.  Normally, when you stand, your ears, shoulder joint and hip joints should basically line up with one another.  In that position, your head is balanced, and your spine and neck muscles only have to contend with holding up about 10-12 pounds.  Now, for every inch your head moves forward from it’s neutral balanced position, the muscles in the back of your neck have to do the work of holding an extra ten pounds.  So, if you’re staring at your phone with your head 4” farther forward than it should be, your neck is experiencing about 50 pounds instead of the normal 10.

Needless to say, all this extra work makes the muscles in the back of your neck tighten up and shorten, along with your chest muscles.  When this happens, muscles in your mid back and deep within the front of your neck have to relax and lengthen.  Over time, these muscles become weak.  The result is a forward-slumping posture, with your head too far forward, upper back hunched and shoulders rolled forward and inward – sort of like a gorilla.  Some writers have taken to calling this phenomenon “tech neck”.

So what’s so bad about that?

There are many reasons why tech neck isn’t good.  Some are worse than others.  When your muscles are chronically tight and overworked, they are prone to developing Trigger Points.  They’re different from regular tight muscles.  Trigger points are basically little inflammation factories.  What’s even weirder, trigger points can cause pain and other symptoms in totally different parts of the body – away from where the real problem is. 

Trigger points in your neck and shoulder girdle can produce headaches, neck, chest, back and arm pain.  It has even been suggested that trigger points in the neck can contribute to sensitization of a structure in your brain (the caudal trigeminal nucleus), and may contribute to migraines.  What’s more, if you’re an athlete, tech neck can affect your performance by restricting shoulder mobility.

Over time, tech neck may also contribute to wear and tear on your spine.  Vladimir Janda noted that certain segments of the spine in the neck and upper back wear more quickly due to added mechanical stress and altered curvature.  Pain from the joints in your spine can add to your headaches, back and shoulder blade pain.

So What Can I Do About It?

The most obvious thing is to limit how much time you spend on electronic devices.  Obviously, that’s easier said than done.  What you can do is keep screens closer to eye level so that you don’t have the same tendency to lean your head forward and down.  If you work on a computer at work, you may want to take frequent short breaks to stand up or simply look away from your screen.  A trainer at your gym may also be able to show you some exercises that can help, too.

If you are experiencing pain, headaches, TMJ, think you have a pinched nerve or your think your tech neck posture is affecting your athletic performance, it is time to see a qualified healthcare practitioner. 

At Orthopedic & Sports Acupuncture, we specialize in treating patients muscle imbalances like tech neck.  When you come in for your appointment, we will take a history, do a physical exam and help rule out more serious problems.  The advanced Orthopedic Acupuncture & Dry Needling styles that we use are ideally suited to reset dysfunctional muscles, reduce neurogenic inflammation and help restore normal function.  We’ll create an individualized treatment plan for you to help reduce your pain level, improve your quality of life and help you get back to doing what you love.