It’s very likely you’re reading this on your smartphone, or maybe on your tablet. Now, don’t stop reading or anything. Just understand that the way you tilt your head to tap, scroll, and stare at a screen is almost certainly harming your neck, back, and posture. Doctors have dubbed the physiological effects of our modern lifestyle “tech neck” — and it’s not good. As smartphone use continues to increase, so, too, does the prevalence of pain and discomfort in our bodies — and the need for you to practice neck exercises.
The culprit behind tech neck is not your phone — it’s your head. “Our heads flex forward when we’re on our devices,” says Dr. Chris Tomshack, founder and CEO of HealthSource. “The weight of the human head is 10 to 11 pounds, but flexed forward, that’s leveraged to 50 to 60 pounds of pressure. Our necks are not big enough to handle that much pressure continuously for any significant amount of time. After a while, the muscles that surround your neck get strained.”
Signs of tech neck include neck pain, of course, but also headaches and pain radiating behind the eyes, at the temples, and at the base of the skull. “I have people coming to my office with sore upper backs and headaches all the time from looking down at their devices,” Tomshack says. “And people with rounded shoulders. When you round your shoulders, you hinder your body’s ability to take deep breaths. Your oxygen and energy levels can drop.”
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment, so it’s important try to adjust how you use your electronics to minimize strain — and take a break from staring at office email all day. “Give your muscles, ligaments, and tendons a break as often as you can remember to do it,” Tomshack says. In addition, here are a few more ways to save yourself from developing tech neck in the first place.
- Hold your phone at just below eye-level. Use your index finger to text, not your thumbs.
- When using technology, sit up straight with your head in a neutral position (ears over your shoulders) with good posture and your feet planted flat on the ground.
- Stand up every 20 minutes and roll your shoulders back. Better yet, walk around.
- Consider raising your computer to eye level.
Too late for prevention? Here are some exercises to correct tech neck, prescribed to undo and counteract the strain of hunching forward over your shiny toys.
Why? “This reverses the curvature of your upper back and straightens your neck,” Tomshack says. “You’re stretching everything on the front of your neck and contracting everything on your back. Tech neck does the opposite, overstretching your back. Over time it changes your posture unhealthily.”
How to do it: Standing, tuck your chin in toward the rear of your body. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 5 times. Does this twice a day.
Avoid: Looking down. “Your eyes must remain focused on the wall ahead of you at eye level,” Tomshack says.
Why? It will improve your neck’s range of motion.
How to do it: Sitting up straight with shoulders back, extend your head backward and look up at the sky or ceiling. Push down on your forehead with some pressure. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat 5 times. Do twice a day.
Avoid: Tensing your neck and shoulders; forcing your head back. “Completely relax your neck muscles,” Tomshack says.
Side Neck Stretch
Why? “This stretches the muscles and soft tissue structures on both sides of your neck,” Tomshack says. “The better your range of motion, the healthier you are.”
How to do it: Standing up tall, relax your neck muscles as you tilt your head to the left, moving your left ear toward your left shoulder. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 5 times. Switch sides and repeat.
Avoid: Contracting your neck muscles. “Let gravity pull your head over,” Tomshack says.
Why? “These stretch the front of your shoulders, your pecs, your biceps, and your forearms,” Tomshack says. “The ‘T’ should feel wonderful.”
How to do it:
“Y”: Standing, extend your arms straight up, extending your fingertips to the ceiling and rotating your wrists so your thumbs are pointed at the wall behind you. Hold for 30 seconds.
“W”: Drop both upper arms to the left and right so they are parallel to the floor, elbows at 90 degrees, with your fingers still pointing up and your thumbs pointing behind you. (You’ll form a human goal post.) Contract your upper-back muscles. Hold for 30 seconds.
“T”: Drop your lower arms so your fingertips are pointing to the walls on either side of you, rotating your wrists so your thumbs are still pointing behind you. Hold for 30 seconds.
“L”: Drop your upper arms to your sides, bend your elbows 90 degrees, and contract the muscles between your shoulder blades to reach your thumbs back towards the wall behind you, keeping your palms facing up. Hold for 30 seconds.
Avoid: Not pointing your thumbs behind you; not fully extending or contracting. “The rotation to get your thumbs pointing back is what stretches the front shoulders,” Tomshack says. “It’s easy to forget, but not doing it reduces the effectiveness to almost nothing. And really try to extend each arm and your fingertips — it makes a big difference.”
Doorjamb Posture Assessment/Stretch
Why? “This works your middle-back muscles between the shoulder blades as well as your erector spinae,” says Matthew Comer, a trainer and Pilates instructor for Club Pilates in San Diego. “It gives you a reference point to know where you posture is based on how far away you are, whether or not you can get your head on the jamb without your ribs popping. It also lengthens your chest muscles. Poor posture is associated with tight pecs.”
How to do it: Standing in a doorway, position yourself two feet from the frame but with your pelvis and upper spine touching the doorjamb. The back of your head should also touch the jamb — if it doesn’t, position a folded-up towel between your head and the jamb. Reach your arms forward at shoulder height, palms down. Bend your elbows. Hold for 60 seconds. Repeat 3 to 4 times a day.
Avoid: Not keeping your head in contact with the door jamb.
Upright Chest Lift
Why? “This lengthens the pecs and abdominal wall in the front,” Comer says. “The muscles in the back can be more proactive in holding your posture.”
How to do it: Standing or sitting, place one hand on top of the other and then place both hands on the bump on the back of your head, palming your skull. Gently press your head back into your hands. With your eyes forward, bend back your upper torso slightly. Hold for 30 seconds.
Avoid: Flipping your head back like you’re a Pez dispenser; tilting pelvis instead of moving upper-middle back. “Let your breastbone lift up and back while keeping your pelvis still and neutral,” Comer says.
Face-Down Chest Lift
Why? “This is a strengthening exercise for your core muscles,” Comer says. “Think of your entire spine resting on an imaginary wall as you lift up.”
How to do it: Lie on your stomach with your feet hip distance apart. Stack your hands in front of you, keeping your elbows bent. Place your forehead on your stacked hands. Engage your abdominal muscles to lift your shoulder blades, hands, and head one inch off the floor. Hold for 30 seconds.
Avoid: Lifting your feet; overlifting your torso. “Your feet should stay down the entire time,” Comer says. “You’re using your lower back if you overlift. This is just a hover, not a full-on lift up.”
The Tech Neck Bottom Line
Tech neck is a very real phenomenon that can give you far more than a sore neck. In order to offset tech neck, first of all you need to take a break from your phone, tablet, and computer. Go ahead and give it a try right now. Really. Next, make neck exercises and stretches part of your daily routine.