Who would have thought 20 years ago that we wouldn’t be able to live without a little screen in our hands? We all know the feeling of being slumped over our smartphones and tablets for hours at a time every day. No matter how hard we try to decrease our phone usage, those devices hold an increasing proportion of our work and entertainment.
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Along with repetitive smartphone usage comes text neck, a repetitive strain injury that’s becoming more common. Aggravating muscle pain in the neck and shoulders, and sometimes lower back, is occurring even in teens and young kids.
“Typically, incidence of neck pain increases with age,” says pain management specialist Robert Bolash, MD. “But today we’re seeing and treating more patients — younger patients — who never reported neck pain before.”
How you look at your phone matters
How can using a smartphone or other mobile device cause so much hurt? It’s all in how you look at it. Literally.
“Looking down and dropping your head forward changes the natural curvature of your neck,” says Dr. Bolash. “Over time, that misalignment can strain muscles and cause wear and tear on the structures of the neck.”
Three things happen when you drop your head:
- Your neck moves forward.
- Your shoulders round forward or lift up toward your ears.
- Your neck and shoulder muscles spasm (contract).
“Neck muscles, in their proper position, are designed to support the weight of your head, which is about 10 to 12 pounds,” he says. “For every inch you drop your head forward, you double the load on those muscles. Looking down at your smartphone, with your chin to your chest, can put about 60 pounds of force on your neck.”
Besides muscle pain, text neck can cause a host of other health concerns. Sitting in a slumped position restricts your lungs’ ability to expand, impairing your lung capacity. Plus, inhaling less oxygen means your heart needs to pump harder to distribute more oxygen-carrying blood through your body.
Three tricks to feel better
To nix text neck, you have to improve your posture. Dr. Bolash recommends you:
- Straighten up. Learn proper posture and neck alignment by peeking at your profile in a mirror. If you’re standing correctly, you should be able to draw a vertical line from your ear to your shoulder.
- Arch your back. If your posture isn’t perfect, try doing shoulder extensions. Arch your neck and upper back backward, pulling your shoulders into alignment under your ears. This simple stretch can alleviate stress and muscle pain.
- Look forward. Rather than tilting your chin down to read your smartphone, raise the device to eye level. The same goes for your desktop computer. Your monitor screen should be at eye level so your head isn’t perpetually dropping and causing muscle strain.
If you have neck pain, first try to alleviate it by applying ice or a heat pack, doing stretching exercises or taking over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen.
While it may be close to impossible to completely limit using your smartphone, remember to take breaks or only use it for shorter amounts of time.
Texting thumb can also happen
While not part of text neck, texting thumb is another texting-induced repetitive strain injury.
“Engaging with an occupational therapist or applying a topical pain reliever may help soothe a strained tendon,” says Dr. Bolash. “But, ideally, you should limit how much you’re texting. Composing a manuscript with your thumbs, on a screen that’s a couple of inches wide, isn’t what mobile devices were made for.”
If you’re feeling any numbness or tingling, reach out to your doctor. Being aware of any symptoms can help prevent permanent damage down the line.