Our obsession with staying connected may be turning us into the hunchbacks of the digital age.
Three years ago, Jennifer Stricker struggled with constant neck ache. It got so bad that she sought relief from a chiropractor. But despite the adjustments and stretching exercises, the tightness in her neck came back.
Then, one day, she had a revelation: She noticed the more time she spent hunched over her smartphone, the more her neck hurt.
“I’m on my phone constantly, Pinteresting or looking at blogs,” said Stricker, of Maple Grove. “I love information, so I’m always on it.”
But that love of mobile devices — smartphones, tablets and e-readers — is creating a painful, nagging condition that some chiropractors and physical therapists call “tech neck.”
Marked by a stiff neck, knots in the shoulders and headaches, the malady arises when the head is pushed forward away from the body’s center. The unnatural posture strains muscles in the neck and chest area. Left unchecked, this constant scrunching of the upper body increases the risk of pinched nerves, bone spurs and degenerative disk disease, doctors say. It could even lead to a Quasimodo-like profile much earlier in life.
“I see it every day,” said Dr. Nicholas Mellum, a chiropractor at Complete Chiropractic and Wellness in Richfield.
With nearly 60 percent of American adults now owning smartphones, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, the potential for technology posture-related injuries is growing.
The proper posture, Mellum said, is to keep the head upright, looking straight ahead. With our handheld devices, we tend to round our shoulders and lean forward so our head is projected and our muscles are fighting gravity to try to keep our head upright, he said.
“A good analogy will be if you hold a bowling ball close to your body, it’s easy to hold. But all of a sudden if you put it out with an extended arm and try to hold that, you last only a couple seconds to a minute,” Mellum said. “You can’t do it. That’s what your body is doing with your head.”
Attack of the smart devices
As portable electronics have evolved, so too have the names and kinds of injuries that come from using them. A few years ago, there was “Blackberry thumb,” a throbbing pain in the thumb and wrist caused by repetitive stress from pressing the smartphone’s raised buttons. “Tech neck” also has been called “text neck,” and was common even before the advent of iPhones and Droids, as people flexed their necks down to type and read text messages on the first generations of cellphones.
Texting-related pain was documented in a 2011 study by researchers at San Francisco State University, who found that 83 percent of participants experienced some hand and neck pain while texting. Additional research from the Center for Musculoskeletal Research in Sweden observed that the vast majority of 859 people studied extended their necks forward as they texted.
More recently, the emergence of tablets, e-readers and video streaming has exacerbated the tech neck problem, Mellum acknowledged, as people now can watch movies and TV shows for hours on their portable devices. According to Pew, 42 percent of American adults own a tablet and 32 percent have an e-reader.
Yet, devices aren’t harmful by themselves, doctors say. We can co-exist with our mobile tools, as long as we maintain good posture.
“People [should] put the tablet on something — either a pillow in front of them, a desk or a table,” Mellum said. “Because as soon as you hold [the tablet], you are using some of your shoulder and arm muscles and you adopt more of that ugly, gross hunched-over posture that will make all these problems we’ve been talking about come to light.”
Staying in that imbalanced position can take its toll over time. “If you keep on doing that, year after year after year, you get into that slumped-forward posture,” Mellum said, referencing what he called those “old ladies who have that hunchback-type of phenomenon, and that’s where most of us are going toward.”
Continuous poor posture adds pressure on the neck and spine, which can create a host of serious problems, explained Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, a New York-based orthopedic surgeon and author of “Keys to an Amazing Life: Secrets of the Cervical Spine.”
The added strain can cause rips and tears in the intervertebral disc spaces. The discs also may become arthritic because of the breakdown. He is especially fearful of the lasting effects on young people who are more prone to spending hours on their devices.
Disc problems are common and preventable, Hansraj said, but he added: “I firmly believe they are being enhanced by the poor posture of the digital age.”
Today, Stricker, a 39-year-old graphic designer, makes a conscious effort to avoid tilting her head down while using her phone. Instead, she holds the screen up to eye level. That small movement eases her neck pain, she says.
Other remedies for tech neck include regularly stretching, taking breaks from gadgets and using the dictation option on phones to send text messages instead of typing.
A Florida chiropractor who runs a business called the Text Neck Institute, has even created an app that notifies Android phone users when they need to sit up straight. The app causes a red light to appear in the top corner of the smartphone when it senses bad posture.
Patricia Burrows, of Lino Lakes, knows her reliance on technology has become a pain in the neck.
A social worker, she uses a netbook to fill out reports and often finds herself looking down at the screen held in her lap. She also relies on her smartphone throughout the day — to get directions for her home visits, to check Facebook and to read e-mails.
“I would say neck and shoulders are two of my hot spots. Those are vulnerable areas for me anyway because my posture is not great. This just makes it worse,” she said.
For relief from her gadget-related aches and pains, she makes regular visits to her chiropractor. She’s learned to do a variety of neck, shoulder and back stretches using weights and the walls in her home.
“It really comes down to self-care in between visits,” Burrows concluded. “The exercises are helpful.”
Dr. Carol Jillian-Ohana, a chiropractor at Cloudwalk Chiropractic in Lino Lakes, says many of her patients are in denial about their overuse of smartphones and related issues. “It’s a huge problem,” she said, estimating that technology is at least a contributing factor in 80 percent of her cases.
“There’s such a feeling of urgency about those devices,” she said, “because they make little noises and that reminds people to stay engaged.”
She said the struggle continues for her patients, even as they lie in her office hoping for relief.
Some have continued to text while lying on their stomachs on the adjustment table, Jillian-Ohana said. She’s even had patients jump off the table — to check their phones, of course.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488