'Text neck' - a form of repetitive strain injury - is becoming more common. [Photo: Bigstock]

‘Text neck’ – it’s a thing

17 October, 2016

First it was computer monitor squint, then iPhone phone elbow and Blackberry thumb, now we can add text neck to our growing list of digital disabilities of the modern age.

Virtually unheard of a few years ago, text neck is a type of repetitive strain injury that’s becoming more common as more people hunch over smartphones to read and type. Aggravating muscle pain in the neck and shoulders, and sometimes lower back, we are now seeing this problem in teens and adolescents as well as adults.

Of course, this posture of bending your neck to look down does not occur only when texting. For years, we’ve all looked down to read books for example. But texting adds an extra dimension to the problem because, in addition to being just one more reason to look down, we do it more often and for longer periods each day.

What you need to know

» Text neck is a form of repetitive strain injury caused by spending hours each day hunched over a handheld device

» It is now being seen in teens and younger children as well as adults.

» It’s a potentially huge public health problem given that 79% of adults aged between 18 and 44 have their cell phones in their hands almost all the time.

A heavy weight

That’s a problem because the weight of your head relative to your spine changes according to the angle. In 2014, a study in the journal Surgical Technology International used a computer model to calculate how the force to the cervical spine – the seven vertebrae in the neck region – increased as the head bent forward.

Sitting upright the human head weighs around 12 pounds. But as, the researchers showed the neck bends forward and down, the weight on the cervical spine begins to increase. At a 15-degree angle, this weight is equivalent to about 27 pounds, at 30 degrees it’s 40 pounds, at 45 degrees it’s 49 pounds, and at 60 degrees it’s 60 pounds.

To put that in perspective at 60 degrees the force would be like balancing an average 8 year old on your cervical spine for several hours a day.

Muscle soreness and more

All that extra force results in more load on discs, which can eventually degenerate and lead to chronic neck pain and soreness. But you may also experience:

  • Upper back pain ranging from a chronic, nagging pain to sharp, severe upper back muscle spasms
  • Shoulder pain and tightness, possibly resulting in painful shoulder muscle spasm

If a cervical nerve becomes pinched, pain and possibly neurological symptoms can radiate down your arm and into your hand.

Some studies suggest that text neck could lead to early wear-and-tear on the spine, degeneration, the onset of arthritis in the neck and even surgery.

It’s potentially a huge public health problem.

To give you an idea of the scale, a recent report (sponsored by Facebook) found that 79% of the population between the ages 18 and 44 have their cell phones with them almost all the time – with only 2 hours of their waking day spent without their cell phone on hand.

Help to stop text neck

If your neck is sore after a hard day’s texting you might want to review your life priorities! But given that texting has become such a part of the modern age it’s worth incorporating some of these common sense actions into your daily routine:

Lift your phone Move the phone (and other handheld devices) up to eye level so you’re not tilting your head at a stressful angle.

Put down the phone Spend some time away from handheld devises. If you just can’t do it try changing positions when texting – lying on your back, for example, can really help to relieve pressure on the neck. If you need to set a timer or alarm that reminds you to get up and walk around every 20 to 30 minutes.

Sit up straight Good posture, with your shoulders pulled back, keeps your body aligned in a neutral position.

Stretch Periodically throughout the day take a moment to arch the neck and upper back backward to ease muscle tension and pain.

Keep fit Your general level of fitness will influence how much or how little you are affected by text neck. A strong, flexible back and neck are more able to handle extra stress. Yoga is a good way to maintain both strength and flexibility.

In addition, bending your head forward to work on your computer can also add to your pain. So if you work in an office, make sure your screen is set up so that when you look at it you are looking forward, with your head positioned squarely in line with your shoulders and spine.

Or try why not tai chi?

Recent evidence suggests that tai chi, a low-impact mind-body exercise, can be as effective as neck exercises in relieving persistent neck pain.

The study reported in The Journal of Pain, compared tai chi with regular neck exercises and no treatment to improve neck pain, disability and quality of life in groups of people with nonspecific chronic neck pain.

Results showed that 12 weeks of tai chi was as effective as standard neck exercises in improving pain, disability, quality of life and postural control in those suffering from chronic neck pain.

In addition, unlike regular neck exercises you can’t do tai chi while holding your phone or tablet – or even keeping your phone within reach – so you may get other relaxation and anti-stress benefits from the practice as well.