Americans now spend more than five hours a day hunched over, reading emails, sending texts or checking social media sites, and it’s turning into a real pain in the neck. No really, there’s actually a condition called “tech neck,” and there’s a good chance you — or someone in your family — have it.
According to a recent study by Imagine MD, a direct primary care medical company based in Chicago, “tech neck,” is one of the most frequently Googled conditions in the United States these days, right behind “texting thumb,” and “cellphone elbow.” Sure, the terms might sound funny, but these new tech-related conditions can be serious and painful. Here are the top three — and what to do about them.
TECH NECK, AKA “TEXT NECK”
I’ve been calling it the “cyber slouch,” and until recently, had no idea how much damage it’s done to my own health. Twice a week for nearly six weeks now, I’ve gone to a physical therapist to deal with chronic upper back, neck, shoulder, and headache pain. I thought it caused by an old sports injury, or maybe because I travel too much for work. Or because I just work too hard in general. But no, it’s all due to how much time I spend slouching behind my laptop or hovering over my smartphone.
Now that I know what it is, it seems like just about everyone I know has it too. Especially teenagers. According to Andrew Lui, Physical Therapist and Clinical Professor at the University of California San Francisco, one quick way to see if you might have it, is to look at your profile sideways in a mirror. If your ears are not lined up with your shoulders, you might also suffer from tech neck.
How did this happen? The human head weighs about 10 pounds. The more you tilt your head forward and down, the more gravity increases the weight to your neck. Tilting your head 30 degrees equals about 40 pounds of strain on your neck. A 60-degree tilt is equivalent to 60 pounds of force.
“Over time, your head shifts forward,” says Lui. “We call this forward head carriage. It can cause excess strain on your upper spine.” If left untreated, tech neck can cause all sorts of problems including headaches, pinched nerves, arthritis, bone spurs and muscular deformation, disc degeneration, and nerve complications.
“Think about your body as much as you think about your work,” says Lui. He encourages people to make their work stations fit their body, rather than the other way around: the scrunch, hunch, slouch, lean, tilt, and slump that so many of us fall into. “Start with good posture, move your screen directly in front of you, so that you’re not looking down all day. The main principal? It should fit you, not you it,” he adds.
Experts also say to raise your mobile devices higher, and closer to your line of site: and keep your head up while texting or scrolling.
There are also a series of stretches that are good for posture. I’ve been using two free apps, Great Posture (iOS) and MyNeck (iOS, Android). Both walk you through gentle stretch and strengthening exercises like chin retractions (pull your chin back and in, like give yourself a double-chin), shrugs (just like they sound, raise your shoulders toward your ears and and then relax), and slow-no’s (turn your head side to side like you’re saying “no”). The biggest thing to remember here, according to Dr. Lui, is to stay physically fit all year around, and to see a specialist if pain persists or gets worse.
TRIGGER THUMB, AKA “TEXTING THUMB”
Thumb pain is the number one most searched for technology-related injury, with nearly 100-thousand monthly searches, according to that Imagine MD report. Like tech-neck, it’s another repetitive stress injury, caused by too much gripping, tapping, and swiping, either on a video game controller or a smartphone screen.
According to Robert Wysocki, MD, of the Rush University Medical Center, thumb strain usually falls into one of two categories: “trigger thumb,” or thumb arthritis. Trigger thumb occurs when a tendon that controls thumb motions becomes overworked and constricted, while thumb arthritis is centered on the joint where the thumb connects to the wrist. Arthritis of the thumb is a pretty serious condition, but if you’re a texting addict with a bum thumb, it’s likely you simply have the less serious “trigger thumb.” This means cramping, inflammation, and general discomfort in the thumb and lower portion of the hand.
Amongst doctors, the verdict is still out on whether smartphones or gaming consoles actually caused this condition, but the correlation between smartphone popularity and complaints of thumb pain is impossible to ignore.
Thumb strain is another repetitive stress injury, so preventing it all comes back to you giving your thumb a break when it needs it most. Wysocki recommends changing how you type on your phone, either by switching hands back and forth and have both thumbs baring half of the load, or by holding your phone flat in your palm and using your index fingers to type from time to time.
If your thumb is already in pain it’s important to give it a rest. If it’s seriously causing you discomfort you can apply ice to dull the pain, and in particularly dire cases Wysocki suggests a cortisone shot which can loosen things up a bit, but only as last resort.
DIGITAL EYE STRAIN, AKA “EMAIL EYE”
A splitting headache and itchy eyes after pulling long hours staring at a computer display aren’t just the annoying side effect of a work day. Your zombified screen stare can also cause chronic health problems over time. Symptoms of digital eye strain can also include blurred vision and even seeing double.
Your eyes simply weren’t made to stare at a computer screen for hours, but that’s the reality for anyone whose job revolves around a computer. Over 60 percent of Americans report experiencing symptoms associated with digital eye strain, including over 20 percent reporting eye-related headaches, 22 percent experiencing blurred vision, and nearly 23% struggling with dry eyes as a result of their extended screen time, according to data from The Vision Council.
Optometrists call it the “20-20-20” rule: For every 20 minutes you spend staring at the screen, look away for 20 seconds at something that is 20 feet away. This simple habit gives your eyes a much-needed break, allowing them to refocus and refresh before diving back in for another 20 minutes of computer time.
Always be sure you’re at least arm’s length from your screen and, if that’s too far to comfortably read text on the screen, simply increase the font size in your computer’s settings. Also, do you best to eliminate overhead lighting around your computer area, as it tends to create screen glare which contributes to eye strain. If you wear glasses, consider anti-reflective coating when you buy your next pair, and it’ll cut down on glare even more.