With the proliferation of smart phones and their increased use, a new medical condition now is being diagnosed — tech neck.
Although there is no official medical diagnosis, the term “tech neck” now is being used to define symptoms and complaints related to neck pain related to prolonged smart phone or computer use.
The human neck is a complex structure and a marvel of design. The neck or cervical spine has many functions; chief among them is to position the head, which weighs between 9 and 11 pounds in space, serves as a conduit for important blood supply to the brain and as a conduit for the spine cord.
The neck has incredible range of motion and is perhaps the most flexible of all parts of the spine. The neck is made up an alternating structure of disc and bone surrounded by muscles and ligament. The neck is therefore flexible and strong. The neck has the ability to bend forward and backward 45 degrees, side bending left or right of 45 degrees and rotation of 80 degrees to the left and right.
However, although the neck is flexible and strong for the job it has to do, it was not designed to be held in a stationary position with the weight of the head for an extended period of time.
As the neck bends forward the weight and stresses that the head places on the neck increases significantly and places undue stresses on the disc, ligaments and muscles.
As such, patients who spend significant time on their smart phone or at a computer work station with their necks bent forward often will experience neck pain/soreness, shoulder pain/discomfort and even headaches. Over time, this overuse can lead to long-term changes and early arthritis in the neck.
Tech neck is extremely problematic, since most of the patients who are experiencing symptoms are younger adults. For older patients, tech neck also is problematic since it will worsen already arthritic conditions.
Although it will be nearly impossible to have patients discontinue using their smart devices or computers, preventative steps can be taken to avoid tech neck syndrome.
Perhaps the most useful step would be to practice not bending the neck while using a smart device/computer but rather looking down with your eyes while keeping the neck upright.
Other options include spacing out time spent on devices to give the neck a chance to relax. Another useful tip is to move your head and neck around while on your devices, therefore giving your neck a chance to relax and give the muscle a break from being so stationary.
If symptoms develop, the first step would be to decrease the use of the device to give the neck a chance to rest and recover. If symptoms develop despite rest, then active treatment can be instituted. These treatments can include an anti-inflammatory medication, with neck flexibility and strength exercises. These exercises can allow the neck to deal with extra stresses from prolonged bending. Increased flexibility will help by keeping the neck joints from becoming stiff and painful.
For those patients who develop tech neck from increased computer use while at work, it is best to adjust their work station so the neck does not have to bend as much while using the computer.
One solution would be to use a standing or adjustable desk that allows the users to change the position of their work station, thereby changing the position of the neck, removing stresses on the neck and allowing it to relax.
Although tech neck is becoming more common due to increased smart devices and computer use, the good news is it an be caught early and treated.
Dr. Dwight S. Tyndall, FAAOS, is spine surgeon practicing in the Region. His column covers a wide range of health and medical issues.