What Causes 'Tech Neck'?

Look out! Tech neck is coming for you. It's not some horror movie monster or fabled woodland creature. It's really just a new term to describe an old problem. Dr. K. Daniel Riew, director of cervical spine surgery and co-director of spine surgery at the NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital, told NewYork-Presbyterian (NYP) that tech neck (you might also see it referred to as text neck) is the headaches, muscles spasms, joint pain, and stiffness that can result from prolonged periods of bending the neck downward to look at electronic devices. Talk about a sign of the times.

Dr. Riew goes on to suggest that all of us, at some point or another, are likely to experience symptoms of tech neck, saying that anyone who spends time on a computer or scrolling on a cell phone is at risk. But no need to panic. Let's examine the causes of tech neck and how to prevent it.

How does tech neck happen and what will it do to me?

If you think the idea of causing injury to yourself by sitting at your desk or scrolling on your device while sitting on your couch sounds ridiculous, you're not alone. But there's a perfectly plausible explanation, according to NYP. When we hold those positions, with our backs straight and our heads slightly lowered, the muscles in our necks have to contract to hold up the weight of our noggins (eh-hem, such big, heavy brains). The more we do it, the harder our neck muscles work, putting unnecessary strain on these muscles that can eventually lead to discomfort or pain.

When speaking to Everyday Health, Dr. Steven Knauf, executive director of chiropractic and compliance at The Joint Chiropractic in Scottsdale, Arizona, describes the long-term ramifications of tech neck. He says that aside from the general pain and stiffness, holding such an unnatural pose too often and for too many hours can result in a loss of the natural curvature of the spine. That's because, over time, the act of straining your neck forward can cause the neck muscles to lengthen and the chest muscles to shorten, which will increase the spinal pressure in your neck and can cause bulging or ruptured discs.

How can you prevent tech neck

When it comes to tech neck, prevention is the best course of action. A 2019 study published in PLoS One found a correlation between the amount of time people spend looking at devices and the severity of their neck pain. Physiopedia says the key to preventing tech neck is to limit the amount of time you spend holding postures that could strain your neck, upper back, and arms. When you can't necessarily limit the amount of time in front of tech, like when sitting in front of your computer, it's important to take breaks frequently.

Dr Riew suggests sitting with your chair reclined at about 30 degrees, with extra support for your lower back at the base of your spine (via NYP). This takes the pressure off your spine and keeps your head and neck from straining forward. Stretching often can help too. Everyday Health recommends neck rolls, chin tucks, and even getting down on the ground and doing half cobras.