Tips From a Tech Neck Survivor
How To Manage (Or Avoid) Forward Neck Syndrome
I first noticed my neck pain two years ago. It started with tightness on the right side of my neck, running parallel to my cervical spine. For weeks, the pain radiated intermittently from the base of my skull to my right shoulder. But each time, just as I'd start to wonder if I was injured, the discomfort would fade, and things would return to normal.
Truth is, I've always had the bad habit of allowing stress to collect in my shoulders, causing them to tighten until sometimes I'd find myself practically in a scrunched posture - my shoulders raised up toward my ears. So, when the neck pain first hit, I thought that was the problem. However, had I taken the time to better consider when I was experiencing this pain, I might have realized the culprit was more subtle and occurring even in moments when I was stress-free.
Eventually, the neck pain returned and stuck around regularly. That's when I knew something was wrong. By then, my husband was working with a chiropractor for his own chronic pain due to an old injury. Encouraged by his progress, I made an appointment for my own personal chiropractic evaluation.
It was there that I was diagnosed with Forward Neck Syndrome, also commonly known as Tech Neck.
What Is Forward Neck Syndrome?
This injury is characterized by a hyper-extension of the cervical vertebrate of the spine. At one time, it was a condition experienced almost exclusively by computer programmers and coders. But as our world has become more digitized and we've grown accustomed to using electronic devices more frequently, it's become rather widespread.
Tech Neck Causes
To understand what's happening, you need to understand the physics involved. When the head is correctly aligned with the neck (Figure 1, far left), it weighs about 10 pounds. The anatomy of the neck, including muscles, bones, and ligaments, is perfectly designed to support this weight, and there is no strain.
But when the head is lowered, like when you're looking at your smartphone (Figure 1, far right), the weight supported by your neck increases drastically. In this case, it's a six-fold increase to 60 pounds.
As your body attempts to adjust to this repeated posture and the added weight of your head, the shape of your cervical spine becomes altered. This creates a snowball effect. Your posture slouches forward, which creates more strain, causing more misalignment, until the vertebrae, muscles, and ligaments of your cervical spine all but freeze into the position found in Forward Neck Syndrome (Figure 2, right).
Tech Neck Symptoms
In the early stages of this syndrome, individuals experience soreness or stiffness of the neck and shoulders, especially late in the day. Many times, as was my case, the symptoms are intermittent. This makes it easy to shrug it off as a minor, temporary injury, or strain. However, it's much easier (and less expensive) to treat and less likely to cause long term damage during the early stages of this neck injury. Here's what to look for:
Neck, Back & Arms
Be mindful of how your neck, shoulders, fingers, and hands feel after frequent use of your mobile device or computer.
- Are you experiencing soreness at the base of your neck or the top of your shoulders?
- Do you ever notice localized pain, maybe just on one side of your neck or shoulders?
- How about numbness or a tingling sensation in any of your fingers?
If you have any of these symptoms (as I did) and they are not addressed, over time things may escalate until the neck pain includes an almost burning sensation, as if you've torn a muscle. You may also struggle with a loss of strength in your fingers or hands.
As if the neck and shoulder pain isn't bad enough, some individuals experience tension headaches brought on by the muscular strain. When I have these headaches, they radiate from the back of my head to my temples. It can sometimes feel like my head is being squeezed in a vice.
I initially thought my headaches were migraines brought on by hormonal changes, as I'm a middle-aged woman currently experiencing perimenopause. But it turns out, I was wrong about this too. My headaches tend to flare up in line with escalating neck and shoulder pain.
Here's a short video that summarizes and demonstrates some additional details on the diagnosis of Forward Neck Syndrome (or Tech Neck):
Treatment and Care
This injury didn't develop overnight, and it certainly won't disappear quickly either. I've been working with my chiropractor on a treatment plan for nearly a year and a half. The good news is that it is possible to correct this injury. My progress has been great, and my visits are not as frequent as they were at the start (which is excellent news for my wallet).
If you suspect that you may have Forward Neck Syndrome, I highly recommend diagnosis by a professional to rule out any other possibilities. Additionally, there are some suggestions that I have, which are based on my own treatment plan. If your pain is intermittent or you're merely trying to prevent neck damage, these may be helpful.
Your posture, the position you hold your body in when standing or sitting, determines your long-term back and neck health. Low back pain, rounded shoulders, shoulder pain, neck pain, and ultimately Forward Neck Syndrome are all a result of prolonged poor posture.
For Forward Neck Syndrome, the most apparent posture issues are slumped shoulders and a hyper-extended neck. Other signs that contribute to this injury include a slouched pot belly and soreness in the hip area caused by pressure on the hip joints.
How To's For Posture Improvement
Visualize Your Posture. Throughout your day, take a moment to imagine that you have a string coming out the top of your head. Visualize that string floating straight up toward the ceiling and being pulled taut. As it does so, your head rises, stretching your neck into a straight, vertical line. Now, take a breath. With your exhale, loosen and round your shoulders back so that they are correctly aligned. Try to maintain this posture for as long as possible and come back to this visualization whenever you catch your posture shifting back to its old habits.
Slouch Avoidance. Once a day, grab a book and balance it on your head. Then, sit down and spend some time reading your tablet or smartphone. The trick here is to not let the book slip off your head while doing that. You'll need to hold your head up, still and straight. Instead of bending your neck to read, lower your eyes. You might feel silly at first, but this exercise does serve a useful purpose. It helps you to develop the muscle memory of good posture while reading.
Straighten Up. Always align your back firmly against the back of your chair. This will help you to avoid slouching or leaning forward. Also, try to select a seat that encourages good posture when you're experiencing neck or back strain. Something with a supportive straight back, and possibly even some lumbar support, is the best bet.
Consider using a stand-up desk for part of your day. Our bodies simply weren't built to sit all the time.
But don't think this means you need to invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in fancy, stand up furniture. Try working at your kitchen counter. Or check out Amazon for some of their affordable, portable stand up desks. In a quick search of their website, I was able to find multiple options for less than $100 by searching the keywords "stand up desk." And if you're in an office setting, don't forget to reach out to Human Resources. Many employers will reimburse their employees for ergonomic tools.
Also, remember that it can be very easy to lose awareness of how frequently you're looking down at your phone, tablet, or laptop. Make sure you're scheduling breaks from devices throughout the day. The easiest (and cheapest) option that I've found is to set a series of daily alarms on my smartphone to remind me to take micro-breaks. Whenever the alarm goes off, I step away from my device for at least a minute or two. I'll get up, stretch, grab a fresh glass of water, or take a brief walk. I've also gotten into the habit of looking up occasionally when I'm using my mobile devices. For example, when I'm reading or writing, I'll look up and then turn my head to the right and left twice at the end of every section. It might not seem like anything significant but those mini-stretches add up over the course of a day.
Yoga & Stretching
Yoga is a great way to improve flexibility, which prevents and treats injuries like Forward Neck Syndrome. The good news is that you don't need to join an expensive studio to get a good stretch. Instead, here's a free video that I use a couple of times a week to maintain my neck flexibility. It's made a tremendous difference in my overall comfort and range of motion. I'm sure it can help you too!
If you don't have time for a full 30-minute yoga workout, here are some easy stretching exercises that you can do just about anywhere:
Side-to-Side Neck Stretch
Sit in an upright chair and place your hands on your thighs. Start by relaxing your shoulders and letting them fall. Take a deep breath. On the exhale, tilt your head toward your left shoulder and hold for 15 seconds. For a few breaths, on each exhale, try to sink deeper into the stretch. Then use your hand to gently pull your head toward your shoulder. Hold this for a count of five. Repeat this process three times on each side.
Diagonal Neck Stretch
Still sitting in your chair, take a deep breath and on the exhale, turn your head to the right. Hold for a count of five. Then take another breath and on the exhale, tilt your head down toward your chest on a diagonal. Hold for 15 seconds. Keep your breathing steady. Repeat this process three times on each side.
Chiropractic or Physical Therapy
I've mentioned that I regularly visit a chiropractor. The physical adjustments I receive help to restore my normal joint and skeletal function. They also greatly relieve and eliminate my muscle tension.
If chiropractor care isn't for you, your insurance won't cover it, or you can't afford it, I'd still recommend a trip to your physician to evaluate any neck or shoulder pain you're experiencing. Doctors can often make referrals for physical therapy that is covered by insurance or with offices that offer payment plans.
Either way, if your pain keeps coming back, don't put off getting the medical attention that you need.
In conclusion, Forward Neck Syndrome is caused by repeated heavy use of smartphones, tablets, and laptops. It happens because the posture in the upper back and shoulders hunches forward to better support your bent neck and head's increased weight. This syndrome results in pain and stiffness of the shoulders, neck, and back.
To counteract this injury, I've found success by limiting my device usage, taking micro-breaks throughout the day, and employing a yoga and stretching practice in my daily routine.
If you're experiencing the symptoms I've described, I encourage you to explore the tips and tricks I've offered and put some time into developing your own daily practice for improved flexibility. The more preventative measures you take, the more likely you'll be to avoid the costly adjustments needed to realign your posture once chronic damage sets in.