What Is Tech Neck?
As the name suggests, tech neck is a common name for pain in your neck, upper shoulders and back associated with use of technology (i.e. phones, laptops, computers, gaming consoles). This is not a medical diagnosis but it has become a common phrase to describe a group of symptoms that are related to neck and overall posture while interacting with technology throughout your daily life.
As the pandemic rolls on, we have seen an increase in people coming through our door with “tech neck” complaints. With the doors to the traditional office space locked, many have had to adjust to a work from home environment that does not include their beloved sit to stand desks, supportive desk chairs, and ergonomically set up monitors. Some have taken over the couch or bed as the new office, or possibly the kitchen counter or dining room table. If this sounds familiar, your body may be having a hard time adjusting to the new daily stresses and strains associated with prolonged hours on your computer in these not-so-ideal work positions.
Do you catch yourself slouching in your chair with rounded head and shoulders, or perching at the edge of your chair trying your best to sit up military straight? Do you generally feel stiff and painful after spending time on your computer or phone? Keep reading to find out more about tech neck and what you can do to minimize these dreaded symptoms.
Tech Neck Symptoms
Common symptoms related to prolonged phone, laptop or computer use include:
Headache: This is usually a tension-type headache that worsens as the day goes on. Classic tension headaches start at the base of your skull, and migrate up to your forehead and/or behind your eyes. Headache pain may be on both sides of your head, or predominately on one side.
Neck pain: This can be vague or point specific in nature, and range from the base of your skull to the shoulder blades. You may notice pain at rest, and/or pain that worsens with head and neck movements, especially looking down at your monitor or phone.
Neck and back stiffness: You may notice stiffness in your neck and upper back, especially with activities like driving, which require you to turn and look over your shoulder, or when trying to sit up with good posture. It’s common to feel like you want to “crack” your neck or back, or find stretches to relieve the stiffness of your upper back and neck.
Shoulder tension and/or pain: People will often point to the top of their shoulder and base of their neck as a common area of pain or tension. There are several muscles in the neck, spine, and shoulders that can become stiff depending on work posture.
Burning or tingling in your arms or hands: Numbness or tingling anywhere from your neck down to your hand is a sign of nerve compression. You might feel this only in certain fingers, or your whole hand. These symptoms will often feel worse at the end of the work day, and may be relieved by lying down or changing work positions. You should seek physical therapy treatment if you are regularly experiencing numbness or tingling.
How To Fix Tech Neck
Fixing tech neck may be as simple as making modifications to your work from home desk set-up, head posture changes, and simple stretching and strengthening to relieve prolonged and repetitive stress to your upper body.
Stretching and strengthening: Long term sitting or standing with poor posture can lead to imbalances in the stiffness and strength of your postural muscles. This is commonly seen as stiffness in the neck and front of the shoulders, and weakness in the core and shoulder blades. Imbalances continually feed off one another, making posture correction more and more difficult with time.
Ergonomics: Small changes in your home desk set-up can reduce repetitive strain associated with telework, including mousing, typing, and virtual meetings, all often utilizing multiple screens.
Posture: Everyone knows their posture isn’t ideal, but knowing how to correct posture is easier said than done. One of the most common misconceptions is that you just need to “sit up straight” by pulling the shoulders back, this can often lead to additional problems. Another misconception is standing all day is better than sitting all day; well, not if you have poor standing posture, too!
Physical therapy: Physical therapy to address tech neck symptoms will provide you with a personalized set of stretches and strengthening exercises that are specific to your unique needs. We will also provide hands on treatment for pain relief and improved spinal alignment. In addition, we can walk you through the process of improving your work from home set-up in order to reduce the impact of time spent at your computer during the work day to prevent tech neck.
Tech neck Stretches
Upper trap: side bend at your neck by bringing your ear toward your shoulder. You should feel this stretch on the side of your neck
Anterior scalene: side bend at your neck by bringing your ear toward your shoulder and then turn your nose up toward the ceiling. You should feel this stretch on the front and side of your neck
Levator: side bend your neck by bringing your ear toward your shoulder then turn your nose down toward your armp. You should feel this stretch on the back and side of your neck
Pectoralis: there are 2 ways (well really more than that) to stretch your pecs
Foam roller: if you have a long foam roller, lay on the foam roller vertically with the roller along your spine and your head supported. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees, then drop your arms down toward the floor. Some call this the field goal position, others the cactus. Whatever you want to call it, it is the best stretch after a long day on your computer.
Doorway: No foam roller? No problem. Find a doorway in your home, bring one arm up to make a 90 degree angle between your arm and your side. Place your arm on the side of the doorway and then gently turn your body away from that side, opening up your chest and feeling a stretch around the front of your shoulder and chest.
Thoracic extension: again, you have a couple of options for stretches that can target your upper back. We tend to round our backs when sitting at a computer (I know I certainly do), and after 8 hours of this it’s time to break that pattern.
Open book stretch: start laying on your side with your arms pointing straight in front of you. Lift your top arm toward the ceiling and rotate your upper body following your arm .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnVc4BMhv5w
Foam roller: Lay on the floor with the foam roller perpendicular to your spine with the foam roller resting against your upper back. Begin by supporting your neck with your hands. Then, gently extend your upper body over the foam roller. You can then move the foam roller down or up along your spine and repeat this motion.
The neck can be a sensitive area of the body so if you try these stretches at home be sure to listen to your body. If you have pain or an increase in numbness tingling you should not continue with these stretches and should consider scheduling an appointment for an assessment in person.
Tech Neck Exercises
These are just a few exercises to get started with at home to address common tech neck symptoms. Each of these exercises is designed to address common areas of weakness or impairments. If you try these at home and notice an increase in your symptoms, that is a good indicator that you should seek a physical therapy appointment to be assessed in person and have a personalized list of exercises developed for you.
Deep neck flexors: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tLUbErDoTQ&t=157s
This exercise may not feel like much to begin with, but that probably means you are doing it correctly. Subtlety is important to this exercise.
Wall slides: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGvd6H2X0ic
You do not need a resistance band to start this exercise on your own.
Ergonomics for Tech Neck
When possible use a single, external monitor centered on your desk in front of you. Most people use multiple monitors, including a laptop screen. Ensure the top of all screens are at eye level, allowing your eyes to gaze downwards at your work.
Books, printer paper, and children’s toys all work as “cheap fixes” for monitor height.
Pay attention to which monitors you use the most. Ideally, when using two screens, they will both be in front of you at a small angle to each other, ensuring you don’t have to turn your head very far to look at either one. In the event you use one monitor primarily, place that one in front of you, and the less frequently used monitor off to the side.
Use an external keyboard if possible. Laptop keyboards are not ergonomic, and sit lower than an external keyboard, and you’ll be forced to adjust your body position to compensate.
There are a range of ergonomic keyboards, but most simply, look for one that has a small “tent” in the middle, allowing your forearms, wrists, and hands to be slightly angled. This is a more natural resting position for the wrists, reducing stress to muscles and joints of your shoulders, forearms, and wrists, including the carpal tunnel.
If you don’t use your 10-key pad, look for a keyboard without the number pad. This narrows the length of the keyboard, allowing your mouse to sit closer, and reducing the amount of work for your mousing arm.
A standard mouse was designed to fit the hand of an average sized male; if you don’t fit this mold, especially if you have smaller hands, consider a smaller or travel sized mouse to improve fit and reduce the weight you’re moving all day.
Don’t be afraid to switch to left-handed mousing (or to right-handed mousing, for the 10% among us)! It’s best to go cold-turkey to the left hand, you can expect a 1-2 week learning curve.
If switching to opposite side mousing, you can set your computer controls to also switch your “left click” button, meaning you can continue to use your pointer finger of the opposite hand as your primary “clicker” (or money maker, as my partner calls it).
Find a good chair that supports your back, even if it doesn’t match the home décor. There are plenty to choose from, but the right one for you is the chair that provides you with lumbar support and allows you to sit comfortably without slouching and rounding your lower back
Try scooting your hips to the back of your chair and reminding yourself to keep your back in contact with the chair rather than leaning forward on your desk.
If you want to try improving your back support without breaking the bank, you can try adding a lumbar roll to your existing chair or roll up a bath towel and place it behind your low back.
Check in with yourself to see if you are a “leaner.” Are you always leaning to one side and resting on one arm rest? Are you constantly propping yourself on an elbow on your desk?