If you are like most people in 2018, you spend a significant amount of time each day in front of a screen. An increasing number of people use a computer for eight or more hours at work, then go home and use their mobile phone or personal laptop to chat with friends, shop, or even watch movies.
We love and rely on our technology, but could it actually be hurting us?
A new physical ailment is now being observed by doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists the world over. Symptoms vary, but often include chronic headaches, a forward head or hunched over posture and increasing pain or muscular tightness in the neck and shoulders.
Do these problems sound familiar to you?
You may be suffering from a “computer neck.”
Computer neck is typically caused by poor posture when using the computer or other screens for long periods of time. With more and more people using computers for hours each day, this diagnosis is becoming quite common.
Most people recall being told throughout their childhood or teenage years to “stand up straight” or “mind your posture.” But what does good posture really mean and what does it have to do with using technology?
Posture is simply the way that we arrange our bodies when we stand, sit, lie, or walk. “Good posture” is when we properly align our joints, bones, and muscles in the way they were meant to be aligned. “Bad posture” is defined as body positions that cause the misalignment of these same joints, bones, and muscles. This is bad because it ultimately puts extra and unnecessary stress on our bodies. This is where frequent pain usually comes in.
However, some people don’t notice any pain or tension at all for many years. But bad posture will eventually catch up to you. You could be developing computer neck right now without even realizing it!
Forward Head Posture
The problem for most of us is that when we’re busy working or texting, we have no idea that we are pushing our bodies out of their normal and natural positions.
In reality, while looking at a computer screen most people have a tendency to lean forward slightly or even push their head forward. This “forward head posture” puts an immense amount of stress on the muscles of the neck. You see, the neck is meant to support the head in a certain way. When we let our head move forward too much, our neck muscles have to work extra hard to maintain this position. Overworked muscles are painful, tired muscles! We don’t realize how just how heavy our heads are.
If you put this extra work on the muscles of your upper back and neck for hours at a time, it’s no surprise that you are aching by the end of the day. While you may be able to relieve some of this pain with over-the-counter painkillers or a hot bath, the pain will keep coming back each day that you maintain this incorrect posture. And over time, the situation can only get worse…
The Consequences of Untreated Computer Neck
Early Skin Aging
Bad technology habits can wreak havoc on your skin.
Take a look around in any public place, and you are bound to see at least one person walking around looking down at their phone. In fact, you might be one of them! Not only is this causing harm to muscles and joints in your neck and shoulders, but it might also be aging you prematurely. When we have to tilt our head down to look at our phone or desk monitor, we are actually creating a line across the neck.
Don’t believe me?
Look closer at the people you encounter each day—even the news anchor on the six o’clock news—and you might start to notice a faint line beginning to develop on their necks.
On top of this “tech neck” wrinkle, you may be creating other signs of aging across your face. For example, do you absent-mindedly lean on one hand while working on your laptop, squishing your cheek up on one side? Or maybe you squint your eyes and furrow your brows while scrolling on your phone. It is these repetitive and unintentional habits that can cause wrinkles to develop early.
Hunchbacked Posture and Back Problems
If bad computer posture goes untreated not only will your pain and tension get worse but there are other more permanent consequences that can happen. These effects can change not just the way you feel, but the way you look. Doctors and researchers are noticing declining spine health in younger patients as we become more reliant on our phones and other devices. This can ultimately result in a stooped posture or even a hump on your back. And in severe cases, this type of condition can leave you needing a cane to walk.
Test Your Posture
To check if you are beginning to develop rounded shoulders or a forward head posture, there is a simple test you can do on yourself at home. Take off your shoes and try to stand flat against a wall with your head, back, shoulders and heels touching the wall, all at the same time. Once everything is in contact with the wall, your head should remain in a neutral position with your eyes straight ahead. If you have to look up with your head tilted back in order to touch the wall, this is a sign of poor posture and muscular tightness.
You can also try a similar test by lying on the ground, flat on your back and without a pillow. Now, check if your head is flat to the ground with your nose pointing straight at the ceiling. You should not have to tilt your head back to lie comfortably this way.
Now, you may be wondering:
“Does this mean I need to give up all technology, run away to the woods and start living off the grid?”
Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to stop computer neck and reverse its effects on your body and skin, all without throwing out your devices.
Tips for Combatting Computer Neck
Walking is one of the best things you can do for your health in general. But it’s also a great way to reduce the stress on your neck and back from sitting and working on the computer for long periods of time. One recommended way to break up your workday with walking is to go for a short five-minute walk for every 60 minutes of computer time.
If for some reason you’re unable to actually get up and leave your desk to walk around (such as needing to be near a phone answer calls), at the very least stand up and stretch for several minutes every hour.
If you have trouble remembering to do this consistently, try setting an alarm on your phone or use a timer. You should start to feel a difference right away, and not just a reduction in neck pain. This practice will also do wonders for your overall energy levels and mood. The goal is to get your blood flowing and move oxygen to your muscles.
2. Get A Massage
Getting a good massage is a great way to relieve some of the tension and pain you may be experiencing from computer neck.
If you don’t want to spend the time and money to get a professional massage, there are tools and methods of self-massage that you can use to break up muscle stiffness on your own.
However, keep in mind that a massage will not undo all of the damage to your spine and muscles if you don’t correct your posture. Massages are a great method to reduce pain and help loosen stiff muscles, but only the work of improving your habits will give you lasting results.
3. Prevent Wrinkles and Fine Lines
If you’re starting to notice those little lines appearing on yourself, should you run out and get Botox to stop those lines in their tracks? The good news is that the sooner you realize this is happening, the easier it is to reverse the problem.
The first thing is just to become aware of your posture and work hard to correct it. Relax your face when working on your laptop and don’t lean to one side or the other.
And maybe the most important one is to stop looking down at your phone all the time! Start holding your phone up to eye level. Yes, your arms may get tired, but use that as a reminder to take a break from your phone.
Oh, and keep your skin—especially your neck—hydrated with a good moisturizer or face cream.
4. Raise Your Screen
Similar to the tip about holding your phone at eye level, you’ll want to evaluate your workspace to see if it is also inadvertently forcing you to tip your head forward.
If you work on a laptop, it can be especially hard to adjust things so that you don’t have to put your head in an unnatural position to both look at the screen and type. But there are several things you can do to help maintain a better posture while working on a laptop.
Of course, the first thing you want to do is raise up the laptop so that the screen is at the same height as your eyes. There are adjustable laptop stands you can purchase for this purpose. Or you can use other household objects like a few thick books or a sturdy box to achieve this effect in a pinch.
Now, to allow you to comfortably type with your laptop screen raised up, consider investing in a separate keyboard. Yes, it will make your laptop set-up a little less mobile, but when you’re working for long periods of time on this device, it is a small price to pay for your overall health and wellness.
The same recommendation to keep your screen at eye level applies if you’re working on a desktop monitor. Or better yet, many people these days are opting for a standing desk instead of conventional desks. This also relieves any possible problems that may arise in your lower back from sitting for hours at a time.
5. Exercise and Stretch
You can find plenty of stretches and exercises specifically for neck issues due to office work. These apply to anyone who looks at a screen often throughout the day.
Some of them are short exercises that can be performed while sitting at your desk, and others require a bit more room to move.
Perhaps the simplest and most effective stretch is to gently rotate your head along its full range of motion in a slow controlled manner. It is best to do this while standing with your legs hip-width apart.
All the moves you try should provide a comfortable stretching sensation, but if at any time you feel sharp pain you should stop the exercise immediately. Make an appointment with your doctor to be sure something more serious isn’t causing this pain.
6. Use a Posture Correcting Application
Surprisingly, there are actually a number of ways your technology can help you improve your posture. These range from free applications you can download to your phone or desktop, to more expensive programs that require you to wear a device that notifies you when you start to slouch.
At the very least, look for a basic application that will send a posture reminder to your phone every hour. The more often you think about the position of your head and neck, the more it will become second nature to correct yourself without using these little reminders.
7. See a Physical Therapist or Specialist
Finally, if a change of habits and home exercises aren’t doing enough to relieve the pain of computer neck, it may be time to seek out medical advice. There are many experts we can turn to when computer neck becomes a constant problem in our lives, and physical therapy may be the key to getting things under control.
The Bottom Line
Don’t wait until an aching neck is disrupting your life—evaluate your posture habits today to ensure you have a healthy back for years to come.