A Real Pain in the Neck

Device usage has led to increased neck pain

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Too much time hovered over screens hurts posture, leading to spine, shoulder and neck discomforts.

Whether you’re scrolling through Facebook, texting or watching YouTube, you place your neck in a downward position multiple times a day. Known as “text neck,” this repeated motion can lead to increased or chronic neck pain due to excessive texting or usage of mobile devices, according to local health experts. As text neck becomes a growing health concern, medical practitioners advise people on how to prevent and combat this pain.

Root causes of text neck

One way to describe text neck is by comparing the neck to a bank account that you deposit into and withdraw from, according to Ryan Beck, director of rehabilitation at Southern Oregon Orthopedics in Medford. “The average person bends their spine forward 3,000-5,000 times a day, which is a withdrawal from your account,” he says. “A deposit is when you’re in a neutral position — usually a handful of times. When you have thousands of withdrawals in a day and only a few deposits, it leads to neck issues.”

Text neck describes the pain resulting from people spending too much time looking forward at screens, says Phil Hanson, a physical therapist with Jackson County Physical Therapy in Medford. “It can also cause shoulder pain, upper back pain and headaches,” he explains, adding the most common symptoms of text neck include neck pain, stiffness and soreness. “The pain might be localized to one spot or diffused over an area, usually the lower part of the neck. People have described the pain as a dull ache, or a sharp, stabbing feeling in more extreme cases.” 

In addition to causing general pain, Hanson says text neck could also lead to muscle weakness, spinal degeneration and disc compression.

If you look at the neck alignment of someone standing with a neutral posture, Beck says you will see a natural C-shaped curve, but every time you look down, the curve flattens. “When you do that thousands of times a day, eventually the curve starts to flatten permanently, and the discs compress. When you look down again and again, there’s compression on the disc, and it starts to move backward,” he explains. 

Text neck is part of a larger category of neck issues that has existed for decades, says Beck. “Text neck is similar to other activities that require a downward head motion, including reading or gardening,” he explains. However, there are several methods to treat and prevent these neck issues.

Treating text neck

There are generally two categories of treatment for text neck: self-care and formal care, according to Beck. “Educating yourself and understanding that these positions can cause problems is the first step of self-care,” he says, adding that someone who can keep their neck flexible is less likely to have pain. 

For self-care options, Beck suggests avoiding excessive device usage and prolonged static postures. “The best exercise to prevent problems is cervical retraction. To do this, look forward and slide your head straight backward as if sliding a drawer closed. Try to complete 10-20 repetitions of this multiple times a day for the best results,” he explains.

Beck says there are many options for formal care. One option for managing spine pain is mechanical diagnosis and therapy (MDT). “MDT revolves around diagnosing the exact movement, and then determining how much and what to do to restore proper health to the neck. However, formal care needs to bleed back into self-care otherwise results will be temporary,” he says.

One of the most important things regarding text neck is working on your posture while performing certain activities, according to Hanson. For example, if you’re looking at a text, don’t drop your head; raise your head and lift the device. “Remember to take rest breaks. Don’t spend 30 minutes scrolling on your phone. Or you could do some stretches to counteract the persistent forward head motions,” he explains. 

Additionally, Hanson suggests setting up your workstation so you’re looking straight ahead. “You could also do regular chin tuck exercises, or use ice packs, heat or massage to help achieve pain relief.”

Looking ahead

In the last 30 years, the incidents of neck pain have increased, and more people are reporting pain and chronic issues, Beck and Hanson explain. They agree that text neck fits into the overarching problems of a sedentary lifestyle and poor posture. 

“We are putting our head in these forward and downward postures too often. It’s just one piece of the puzzle of why there is an increase in neck and back pain,” says Beck.

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Looking down puts increased force on your neck

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Flexing the head forward to use a cellphone directly affects the spine, according to Hanson and Beck. Tilting the head forward 15 degrees places about 27 pounds of force on your neck. This increases to 40 pounds at 30 degrees, 49 pounds at 45 degrees and 60 pounds at 60 degrees. By having a forward head position, you are increasing the load almost fivefold as opposed to being up and neutral. Damage caused by untreated text neck can be similar to occupational overuse syndrome or a repetitive stress injury.

Other habits contribute to posture problems

“Text neck is similar to other activities that require a downward head motion, including reading or gardening.”

-Ryan Beck, Southern Oregon Orthopedics, Medford

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