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Dossier: Digital life

The inexorable rise of “text neck”

We’re all guilty of constantly looking at our smartphone, tablet or computer screen. Yet most of us don’t realise that this unnatural posture can cause stiffness and neck pain.

Text: Susanne Wagner

Occupational health professionals are always stressing the importance of getting up from your desk and moving around. Using our smartphones to access digital content has long been a part of everyday life. We check our emails, surf the web and send messages around the clock. On average, we spend two to four hours a day stooped over these tiny screens and not just at home on the sofa, but also at the bus stop, on the train and even while walking.

Enormous strain

But all this takes a toll on our bodies. Constantly staring at and tapping our smartphones and tablets means our necks are under constant pressure even though we may not notice it. The more you tilt your head downwards, the greater the pressure you’re putting on your cervical spine. According to a 2014 U.S. study, tipping your head forward by 15 degrees applies a force of 12 kg. At a 60 degree angle this increases to 27 kg. “Try carrying 12 kg on your head – that’s a lot of weight”, says physiotherapist Raymond Denzler.

Try carrying 12 kg on your head – that’s a lot of weight

Bad posture is on the rise

In his capacity as physiotherapy team leader of the spinal column specialist group at the Schulthess Klinik in Zurich, Denzler has noticed an increase in the number of people suffering from bad posture and neck pain – and not just office workers. According to a Harvard study conducted in 2012, excessive tablet use means we don’t move our shoulder joints enough and subject them to poor posture. This can result in pain and restricted mobility known as “iPad shoulder” which is similar to tennis arm. Like “text neck”, the term doesn’t have a proper medical diagnosis. However, Denzler is certain that excessive use of tablets and smartphones is one of the causes of this type of complaint.

Overstrained muscles

What exactly happens to our bodies when we bend our heads over our smartphones? Experts say that subjecting your body to this position for long periods of time can affect the structure of the thoracic spine: muscles, joints, ligaments and discs are overstrained through one-sided use. The constant strain means blood circulation is lower to these areas which leads to inadequate blood supply and subsequent muscle cramping. If the neural pathways are also affected, some muscle fibres are forced to do the work of those not adequately supplied with blood and are overburdened which causes pain. People often don’t complain about the pain until much later, sometimes in combination with other aches and pains. Denzler: “Young people are able to compensate for longer. They tend to complain about the pain a lot later down the line”.

Using your smartphone:

  • Hold your smartphone more frequently at eye level instead of bending your head down.
  • If you tend to type with one particular hand, switch hands more often, or better still, use both hands to type.
  • Use a hands-free kit or headset for phone calls.

At work:

  • Change position frequently and use your breaks for quick exercises: Move around on your chair, stretch your arms and head upwards, bend your upper body forwards and rest your elbows on your thighs, stand up, walk around, circle your arms.
  • The computer screen should be at least an arm’s length away from your eyes (60 to 90 cm). Position your monitor directly in front of you so you’re not forced to turn your head when working. The top of the screen should be at eye level or slightly below.
  • Sit up straight from time to time: raise your head as if it’s being pulled upwards by a thread. Your ears and shoulders should be aligned.

Back pain:

  • 3 months of weight training might be enough to alleviate your back pain.

Stay active

A minor adjustment to your posture can have a positive impact: hold your smartphone higher and look at it directly in front of you rather than looking down when writing every second text message, for example. There are also some easy ways you can improve your posture in the office: sit on your chair and stretch your arms to the ceiling or stretch your upper body backwards and then lean forwards. Denzler: “A few simple changes is all it takes to counteract one-sided strain. Even changing your seating position can make a big difference”. Slouching occasionally or lying on the sofa at home isn’t a problem – just make sure you’re not in the same position for hours on end. “Ideally you should change position every 20 to 40 minutes. That’s the best piece of advice I give all my patients”, says Denzler.

We humans are designed to be physically active, which is why regular physical exercise is the best means of preventing back and neck pain. Weight training, back strengthening exercises, backstroke and front crawl are particularly good ways of strengthening your back. However, walking and hiking are also very beneficial. It should be fun and something you’re willing to stick at and not give up after a couple of weeks.