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One thing’s for certain in the 21 st century: You likely spend a great deal of time looking at your computer and your phone screen throughout the day. Maybe you’re doing that right now as you read this story. And all that time spent looking downward at a screen may contribute to “text neck.”
Neck pain is a fairly common physical ailment — a study published in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy found that 20.3 percent of individuals reported experiencing neck pain. Could the cause be linked to technology? Perhaps, given that a study published in the journal Spine estimated that 75 percent of the world’s population spends hours daily hunched over their devices.
Although not an official medical diagnosis, text-neck symptoms can include neck and shoulder pain, poor posture, headaches and other problems. When you’re in this position, your neck is probably flexed forward and out of its healthy upright posture.
“The more your head is tilted forward, the heavier it actually is on your spine,” says Thomas A. McNally, M.D., medical director of the Spine Center at the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss Memorial Hospital. “It’s pulling down in front of you, instead of sharing the forces, the way they normally would be with good posture .” That means text neck could contribute to poor posture, and less-than-ideal posture can cause the disks in your spine to become out of alignment and cause pain.
“Our disks wear out if they are loaded abnormally,” McNally says. “When everything’s lined up the way it’s supposed to be, the forces are spread out between the disks in the front, in the joints in the back, up the spine, and all the muscles and ligaments. Whereas if you load it abnormally, you’re putting more pressure on either the disk in the front or you’re spreading apart the joints instead of sharing those forces.”
What are the keys to combating text neck? McNally advises taking frequent breaks during the workday. This can be as simple as just looking around and not focusing on a screen for a few moments. Walk around for a bit. The other is maintaining good posture by keeping your spine in its natural alignment. You can hold your phone up higher when you’re looking at it so your neck isn’t in a downward position for too long. McNally also recommends yoga as a way to stretch and keep your joints lubricated. When you’re sitting at your desk, try to maintain good posture. McNally said this means planting both feet on the floor, keeping a slight curve in your lower back, keeping your shoulders pulled back, and positioning your screen at eye level to prevent neck strain.
Another important way that you can prevent text neck? By stretching and strengthening your neck and upper-back muscles (or your posture muscles) to reverse the damage that can be caused by hunching forward looking at your phone or computer for too long.
Experts recommend doing some stretches at your desk during the workday when you need breaks. Stop stretching if you feel any pain. If pain persists despite these stretches and exercises, consider booking an appointment with a physical therapist or your primary care doctor.
Here are five simple desk stretches you can perform to help avoid text neck:
McNally advises sitting up straight and pulling your shoulder blades back and down, as if you were trying to put them in your back pocket. “If you’re doing that, you’re putting your body into good posture,” he says. “You’re aligning your neck and your back.”
Sit upright with your spine aligned. McNally advises acting as if a string is pulling up the center of your head to stay in healthy alignment. Pull your chin back and make a double chin to stretch your neck.
McNally also advises doing gentle neck stretches. First, align your neck by sitting up straight. Turn your neck to the right and then to the left. You also can perform lateral neck stretches. With your head in proper alignment and your shoulders level and down, gently move your head toward your shoulder while keeping your shoulder down. You should feel this stretch in the side of your neck. Perform it on both the left and the right sides.
Assuming your chair is at shoulder-blade height (this exercise will only work if this is the case), simply lean back and drape your head and upper back over the back of the chair, suggests Leada Malek , PT, DPT, SCS, a board-certified sports physical therapist based in San Francisco. Be sure to try to keep your ribs down, and don’t let your lower-back muscles arch. Make this about your upper-back muscles.
Sit in a chair facing forward. Turn to the right and place your right hand on the back of your chair. Your left hand can be on your thigh. Sit up straight and twist your spine so you slightly feel the stretch. Repeat on the other side.
This rotation exercise strengthens your postural muscles and your rotator cuff, too. Strengthening these postural muscles “can help keep your shoulders back and just contribute to better shoulder stability and postural strength,” Malek says. “This also targets the rotator cuff . Two of the muscles, specifically infraspinatus and teres minor, that comprise the rotator cuff are the only muscles that primarily perform external rotation in the entire body. They are relatively smaller and only have a portion of the larger and stronger deltoid muscle assisting in the movement when compared to internal rotation exercises. For this reason, this motion tends to be challenging for many.”
If you find that you’re hunching forward during the day, this can help pull your shoulders back into place and proper alignment. “It’s a great reset,” Malek says.
How-To: Hold on to a resistance band with both hands facing one another. Place your arms out in front of you, and bend your elbows to 90 degrees while keeping them fixed at your side. Keep your shoulders pulled back. Your elbows stay by your side as you pull the band outward with your hands. Aim for three sets of 10 to 15 reps. To progress this exercise, use a heavier resistance band. You also can perform this exercise with just one arm at a time. Add weight with a cable machine. “You should be feeling it behind your shoulder blade, not in the front of the shoulder or the tip of the shoulder,” Malek says.
A simple vertical row “targets the scapular muscles,” Malek says.
How-To: Hold on to a cable or a resistance band with both hands. If using a resistance band, be sure to secure it to an object before pulling. Your arms are out in front, palms facing each other and thumbs facing the sky. Pull the cable or resistance band back by drawing your shoulder blades together and your elbows toward you, skimming your side body. Slowly return to the starting position. Perform two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps. To progress, you can add more weight to the cable or use a heavier resistance band. If you’re adding weight, try for two to three sets, five to 10 reps. To perform this exercise correctly, be sure to use more than just your elbows — a common mistake. Focus on drawing your shoulder blades together when pulling back. “Take your elbows back but not too far, and make sure your shoulder blades are going with you,” Malek says.
Essentially a Superman or upper-back exercise in which you lift your front body off the ground as you’re lying down, this back exercise targets the stabilizing muscles between the shoulder blades. “This is an all-around good posterior-chain exercise,” Malek says.
How-To: Lie on the ground. Keep your arms bent at 90 degrees; your elbows can be slightly lower, if needed. From there, pick your chest up and off the ground as you lift through your ribs, upper back and shoulder muscles. Keep your gaze down and your neck in line with your spine. As you lift, keep your glutes engaged. Focus on your upper-back muscles and not the lower back. If you feel this mostly in your lower back, you’re probably lifting too high. Hold this exercise for about three to five seconds. Perform 10 to 12 reps.
This resistance-band exercise targets your upper-back muscles. “You get your rear delts. You get your rotator cuff. You get your scapular stabilizers, and that’s a nice, upright exercise. It helps to open the chest,” Malek says.
How-To: Stand up straight. Hold a resistance band in front of you in both hands, with your arms out straight in front of you. Pull the band across your chest and return to the starting position. Your arms stay straight the entire time. Pull your shoulder blades toward each other, and keep your shoulders down. Keep your chest up and lower ribs down so you’re not extending through your lower back. Be sure that you have enough slack on the band to pull it across your chest. Perform 10 to 15 reps and two to three sets. To progress this, try a heavier resistance band.