Wednesday, July 01, 2020
Do you find yourself with pain or muscle tension in your neck and shoulders after a long day at work in front of a computer? Do you spend a lot of your free time looking at or texting on your smartphone? You may be suffering from “tech neck” or its cousin “upper-crossed syndrome.”
Sitting long periods of time at a computer and looking forward at the screen can lead to a head-forward posture, with the shoulders rolled forward. Chest muscles are shortened and back muscles stretched. The muscles at the front of the neck are being stretched while the posterior neck muscles are shortened to bring the eyes up to screen level. This is what is termed upper crossed syndrome, as the pattern of muscle imbalance – tight chest and back of neck, stretched back and front of neck - forms an X at the shoulder. But people who drive a lot like truck drivers or delivery people can suffer from this as well.
A person using a hand-held device such as a phone or tablet generally holds it below eye level, necessitating looking down at the screen to read or type. Muscles in the front of the neck and chest get shortened over time, while muscles at the back of the neck and in the upper back are on a stretch. The pain this causes is known as tech neck or sometimes text neck. Note that people who use laptop computers are more at risk of having tech neck than upper crossed syndrome.
When one is sitting or standing with correct posture, the head is balanced over the body’s center of gravity. With the head forward of that line by only 15°, that 10 pound head being pulled on by gravity has a relative weight of 27 pounds. At 45°, the head weighs 49 pounds, and at 60°, 60 pounds. Thus muscles and ligaments meant to handle 10 pounds can be asked to support 50 extra pounds! The muscles in the back of the neck must contract constantly to hold up that heavy head. If the shoulders are also rolled forward, the upper back and shoulder blade muscles are likewise overworked to keep the body upright. This can lead to muscle strain, headaches, and neck and shoulder stiffness and pain. Over time there may be nerve impingement, pain going down the arms, weakness in the hands, numbness and tingling in the fingers, and even damage to the structures of the spine.
The best solution, of course, is always prevention. Maintaining an erect posture, with shoulders back and head centered over the spine, allows the muscles to work as intended. This can be achieved at a computer with a chair ergonomically fit to the user, with the screen at eye level or slightly above, and glasses, if needed, that don’t require leaning forward or tipping the head to see the screen well. Getting this ideal set-up at home can be challenging, but get creative!
Hand-held devices should be held at eye level, not down in one’s lap. If only reading and not typing, you can hold an arm across the abdomen and rest the arm holding the phone on it to bring the screen to eye level. If two hands are needed, the elbows can be braced on the arms of a chair or against the trunk, or supported on bent knees. Again, the object is to get the screen to eye level and prevent the head-down or head-forward posture. Other positions to avoid include holding the phone by one shoulder between the ear and the shoulder, or lying with your head propped up.
But even a good position, held for too long, can be problematic. It is good to take a 1-3 minute break for every 30 minutes using a device. Change positions, or move around if possible. You might need to set an alarm to remind yourself to take a break and move.
What if you already are feeling the effects of weeks (or even years) of bad posture, whether from tech neck or upper crossed syndrome? Symptoms may not be done away with just by trying to use correct posture. You may also need a program of stretching and strengthening to be able to achieve that correct posture.
Some stretching exercises you can begin doing now:
Now is the time to do something about that “pain in the neck” before you look up one day and see yourself hunched over looking and feeling older than your years! And when you can get out of the house again, massage can be of great benefit in alleviating pain and eliminating trigger points in muscles that are shortened or locked long.
- Jo McClaine