Whether you’re working from home or simply spending more time video chatting with friends and family during the pandemic, chances are you’re relying on screens more than ever.
Add the upcoming election to the mix, and you might find yourself on screen overdrive trying to keep up with the news.
With all that time watching and scrolling, symptoms of “tech neck” can quickly creep up, making screen time a pain.
“Tech neck results from the body position we often subconsciously assume when looking at screens. In this position, your chin comes forward, your shoulders round forward, and often your neck is flexed to look down at your phone, keyboard, and/or computer for an extended period of time,” Matthew Cooper, DC, CCSP, chiropractor and founder and CEO of USA Sports Therapy, told Healthline.
He says the unnatural position causes microtrauma and stress to the upper back and neck area, and leads to pain and discomfort.
“Eventually, it can cause poor posture,” said Cooper.
Dr. Renee Enriquez, attending physician and assistant professor for the physical medicine and rehabilitation department at UT Southwestern Medical Center, sees patients with tech neck who often present with the following:
“One can experience aching, burning, stabbing, throbbing, and even numbness and tingling all the way down to their hands,” Enriquez told Healthline.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Cooper has seen an increase in patients with signs and symptoms of tech neck. While people are becoming more aware of the condition, he says it deserves more attention.
“Most people don’t think about the way they are sitting or take corrective action until they are in pain. Because it can take months to develop neck and or upper back pain, and even longer to really change one’s posture, it’s easy to form bad habits in our posture while using our devices,” he said.
He points out that most people do not have the ergonomically correct chairs made for working on a computer. Additionally, working on laptops instead of desktops can cause you to lean over the screen.
“Not to mention, the stress everyone is under in these uncertain times can definitely lead to increased physical tension in your body and increased instances of tech neck,” said Cooper.
Ways to ward off the condition include the following:
Because many home offices are dining room tables, sofas, and beds, they don’t provide an environment for good postural positioning.
“I frequently counsel my patients on setting up a more proper workstation to avoid injury or decrease their current pain. I advise many of my patients that these changes to their workstation at home is a form of medical treatment and can be a tax write-off. Physicians can provide letters of medical necessity to document the need for an improved workstation at home to prevent injury,” said Enriquez.
She suggests visiting a physical therapist or physical medicine and rehabilitation physician to help assess and improve your workstation.
Cooper suggests sitting with your shoulders against the back of your chair and placing your keyboard on your lap to prevent you from bringing your chin and shoulders forward.
“Most people lean over their desk to type and this, to me, is the main culprit of tech neck,” he said.
Take a break from the computer every 30 minutes to an hour.
“During these breaks, stretch the neck and shoulders. For tech neck due to repetitive smartphone use, take frequent breaks and use less. If watching movies or doing other activities for a long time, one can get a cellphone holder so the phone can be placed at eye level,” said Cooper.
Enriquez agrees, noting that “motion is lotion.”
“Frequent movement and stretching is very beneficial for the body. It keeps blood flowing and prevents muscles and joints from getting stiff. If you leave your neck in one position too long, you can develop pain and discomfort. And if not corrected, after a while, one can develop serious medical issues that result in prolonged or permanent pain and disability,” she said.
Every hour, Cooper suggests performing Bruegger exercises. To do this, sit up straight at the end of your chair with your arms extended out and behind your body. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, with your palms facing up, and tuck in your chin so your head is over your body. Hold this position for 30 seconds at a time while taking deep breaths. Then repeat three to four times.
Bands can also be used to strengthen your upper back by performing exercises like scapula rows.
However, Cooper warns that when most people have tightness or pain in their neck, they stretch their neck by touching their chin to their chest.
“This is the worst thing you can do for tech neck. Tech neck causes an elongation with weakness to the posterior neck muscles. In fact, anyone with tech neck should do the opposite. Stretch the front part of your neck and strengthen, not stretch, the back part of your neck,” he said.
Cooper treats tech neck with a combination of physical therapy exercises that strengthen the upper back and neck muscles, as well as stretches for the anterior shoulders.
“Additionally, chiropractic adjustments can help with any fixed joints and massage, and acupuncture can help loosen tight muscles,” he said.
In addition, Enriquez says local application of warm or cold packs and over-the-counter topical creams and medications can help relieve pain and discomfort.
“Most simple interventions can improve symptoms short term, but patients need to acknowledge that their prolonged use of computers, tablets, and smartphones is causing this pain, and a lifestyle change is the most effective treatment for this disorder,” she said.
For severe pain, she suggests getting evaluated by a medical professional.
Because kids often do not understand the long-term ramifications from sitting for long periods of time, day after day with poor posture, Cooper says they are at risk for complications.
“While kids are growing, their lifestyle and habits can dictate their posture, for better or for worse. I believe we are going to see this younger generation have much higher incidents of not only pains as they age, but also an increase in neck, back, and shoulder surgery as the result of screen time-related damage that started when they were younger,” he said.
Parents can help by setting up a proper e-learning workstation, notes Enriquez.
“Many children do not have office space in the home, and the space on the dining room table that the parent sets up may not be the best for the child. [Try to ensure that] they are sitting in a comfortable seat; feet are on the floor or a stool, and that the computer is at eye level. Make sure they get up frequently to prevent stiffness and rest their eyes,” she said.