How to Beat the 21st-Century “Text Neck”

Science says that staring down at your smartphone is taking a serious toll on your neck and spine -- but reducing the damage is simpler than you think. Here's how.

July 27, 2015
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Take a look around at your local Starbucks. Or the mall. Or your grocery store.

No, I mean actually pick your head up, currently glued to your smartphone screen, and look. We are all buried in our phones and tablets — all day, everyday — and it’s becoming a very real pain in the neck.

The Vision Council estimates that 93.3 percent of adults spend upwards of two hours per day using some sort of a gadget — and more than six in 10 spend five hours per day. Spinal surgeon Dr. Kenneth K. Hansraj cites similar stats in his research from late 2014: we’re spending an average of two to four hours a day with head hunched over a phone — which equates to 700 to 1400 hours a year. Cumulatively, you’re looking at a recipe for neck pain and spine-alignment issues.

Consider this. “An adult head weighs 10 to 12 pounds in the neutral position,” writes Hansraj in his paper, published in Surgical Technology International. “As the head tilts forward the forces seen by the neck surges to 27 pounds at 15 degrees, 40 pounds at 30 degrees, 49 pounds at 45 degrees and 60 pounds at 60 degrees.”

That’s a lot of gravity. Imagine six bowling balls stacked on your neck. Or six Thanksgiving turkeys. Or six watermelons. (I know, my neck hurts, too.)

Docs and researchers are calling this 21st-century problem “tech neck” or “text neck.” And unfortunately, there’s not a cure-all for that problem — which is one of the leading causes of disability in the United States.

Your best bet is avoiding the issue all together, if possible — and that doesn’t necessarily mean going on a complete gadget cleanse. Here are some of the ways to beat text neck:

Stretch your neck. Sounds pretty easy, right? Don’t mindlessly get lost in that viral vid or online article, but be mindful enough to realize when your neck is getting stiff. “If you have neck pain, whether it started two days ago or two weeks ago, one of the best things you can do is gently move and stretch your neck muscles,” says Dr. Pierre Côté, an epidemiologist at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, who conducted a study on neck pain fixes last year. I’ve talked to spinal surgeons, who’ve confirmed this tip: just move it, move it. (Gently. Every once in a while.)

Get gadgets to eye level. Take a cue from Hansraj’s study: the less you tilt your neck, the less stress you put on your spine. So, get your gadgets as close to eye level as possible while you’re perusing online. If you’re at home, you can even get a stand for your tablet or smartphone. Finally, let’s say you’re standing in line somewhere, and can’t get your gadget to exact eye level. The closer you can get, the less weight gravity will exert. So, just do your best. With all those hours accumulating, small daily changes count.

Make some changes. As someone who works in media, I know how hard it can be to put down the smartphone. I mean, Twitter updates! Snapchats! Emails… ? Sigh. It’s exhausting. For sanity’s sake, and to avoid that pain in your neck, shut down for a bit. These days, from at least around 6 pm to 10 pm, I try to avoid staring at a gadget screen. I avoid phone pings. Instead, I work out, do something social, make a nutritious dinner, Netflix something (at eye level!), so on and so forth. Also, let’s talk about picking up the phone. There was a period, say, from 2009 to 2012 where receiving an actual phone call would paralyze me. (I mean, who calls anymore???) As it turns out, today, I do. I try to talk on the phone with friends and family as much as possible to catch up. It saves time, helps me feel connected to a real person — and, you know, the risk for text neck and lifelong spine issues.

Not a bad deal, right?

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