Did you know looking down at your phone is like putting the weight of a bowling ball on your neck? Not to mention, when you add stress, your neck will tense up further. The way we sit in front of the computer and look at our devices means we are always looking down. Overt time this causes your head to move forward, and eventually throw off your neck alignment. This is known as “tech neck.” And this is beyond an annoyance. Over time, untreated neck issues can cause massive tissue damage and harm to the spine including slipped or herniated discs. The good news is, there are easy hacks and exercises you can do right now to ease the tension in your neck and cure the related headaches.
Here is your guide to cure tech neck AND get better posture below.
*Please note: I am not a doctor or physical therapist, or licensed in any way to give medical advice. This is from my research and personal experience in the last 8-9 years in PT for various neck muscular tension issues!! If you are experiencing pain, I highly recommend seeking medical advice as soon as possible.
Why you need to care about your neck, even if you do not feel any pain
Your smartphone is giving your neck a six-pack, not your abs
The most cringeworthy thing I see is every day in the gym. I walk down the steps to leave, and almost every time, I have to sidestep someone with their head in the above posture looking at or typing into thier phone. What IS SO IMPORTANT THAT IT HAS TO BE ADDRESSED WHILE YOU ARE WALKING DOWN THE STEPS? Or down the street. Or riding a bicycle. It seems crazy, but I am just as guilty as the next person at hunching over my smartphone. It is literally like a drug. Literally, it affects your brain just the way real street drugs do.
The psychological and mental health impact are definitely important, but outisde the scope of this blog post (and on the list for a future one). But your physical health suffers from this phone addiction. I know caps is like shouting, but this is so important: LOOKING AT YOUR SMARTPHONE IS THE EQUIVALENT TO YOUR SPINE OF PUTTING A 60-POUND BOWLING BALL ON YOUR NECK.
Your desk and computer are even worse
The other major factor is your desk and computer situation. Most people do not have the proper ergonomic alignment and this can result in “forward head posture.” Because of the improper positioning, we have to lean our necks forward to view our computer screens. This action on the neck for 8-14 hours a day can really cause long term damage. Over time it can cause muscle pain in your neck and related areas like your shoulder blades because these muscles become weakened. In the long term, this excessive stress on your spine can cause issues with your joints and your verterbrae.
Your posture, if not corrected, will get you a hump neck way before you are “old”
As you age, if not corrected, you can evantually get the dreaded Dowwager’s hump If you need a visual, picture an older family member you know with that “hump neck” which has a medical name of kyphosis. While there can be other contributing factors, such as osteoporosis, the overarching cost is poor posture and chronic forward leaning.
The GOOD NEWS: THIS CAN BE REVERSED if you address it soon enough. First, you need a general very high level understanding of the architecture of your neck and what muscles if not treatened will weaken and cause you pain in your neck, head, and upper back.
Exactly where is the neck pain coming from? Your Neck, Explained
Your Scalene Muscles
For those of us with desk jobs, the tightness is likely coming from the anterior, medius or posterior SCALENE muscles. These are basically what connects the vertebrae to the flesh and arteries all over your neck. Right as you are sitting, slightly tilt your head to the side and look up while you have your opposite hand resting on your neck. These are your scalenes.
Why you have a headache that may actually be your neck muscles.
The second biggie in your neck, and what can often lead to headaches in disguise, are your suboccital neck muscles. These muscles are right beneath your skull, so if they get tight many times people mistake it for a headache and take an over the counter NSAID. This, however, does not always treat the root cause if it is a tightness in your muscles. A common device used to specially roll over these muscles is called the “peanut“.
What makes your shoulders like a pair of earrings
Tightnes in your trapezius muscle can also lead to neck pain and that pain in your shoulder blades that makes you want to rub up against any wall corder you can find. When these muscles are tight, your shoulders naturally hunch up. It is bad for your neck and back, and very unattractive.
What can you do to help your neck
Fix the external causes
No, I am not telling you to toss your phone into the nearest body of water like Anne Hathaway did with the fountain in Paris at the end of the Devil Wears Prada (unless of course, you are quitting a terrible job with a terrible boss). We need our phones and laptops. There are ways, however, that we can mitigate the “tech” part of the tech neck:
- Get the proper desk setup. Believe it or not, there are professional ergonomics consultants who can come to your home. The key factors are the placement of your arms (they should be bent at a 90 degree angle by your sides) and the relationship of your computer with eye level. It should be just below. Most people have it too low and most people with external monitors have it too high. For me a standing Varidesk works wonders – and burns more calories!
Here is a useful video that explains how your desk should be set up and where your computer should be vis-a-vis where you are sitting:
- Another common occurrence when sitting at a desk is that your chest is curved in. This is a result of weak upper back muscles, which I have videos on how to strengthen below. An easy postural correction besides the exercises below is the “million dollar necklace” rule. As you are on video calls, pretend as if the necklace you are wearing, whether it is real or imaginary is a sparkly, beautiful diamond million dollar necklace you have been loaned and have to give back. You would want your chest out proudly so everyone can see. This also encourages lifting up from the upper clavicles where the necklace would be instead of just arching your back.
- As for your phone – this article has some great tips and hacks on how to hold your phone (like with the computer it should be at eye level. If you are using your phone for Facetime or other screentime, you can easily get one of these low cost tripods to prop up your phone to eye level so you do not have to hold it (my husband and I have purchased several of these).
- My final personal hack is something my friends reading this have probably figured out. I am a big fan of voice to text for emails, text messages and instant messaging. With the occasional funny iPhone autocorrect, it gets the message across faster than I can type it and I hold the phone right up to my face level. I mostly use this in a context where the recipient is a close colleague or friend. For important client emails you can and should wait until you are in front of your computer.
Seek Professional Help
While a lot of the practices I highlight in this article have helped me tremendously, these have accumulated after about 8 years of consistent physical therapy treatment. While I am fortuntae to have never needed surgery, when I first started having issue with my neck, it got so tight I could barely turn it side to side.. It made doing yoga really difficult, becasue a lot of the poses require looking up and around with your neck. In general, I had constant pain, tightness and headaches and I wanted answers. Unfortunately, it was not a quick fix, nor did anything over the counter help. I constantly smelled like Eau de Tiger Balm, but it was not until I started going to PT, doing execrises and really making an effort to work on my posture and smartphone dependency that I finally got relief. I have to keep it up, too – the minute I go a few days without doing exercises or start hunching into my computer screen, I feel tight and the stress from the daily routine is like pouring accelerant on that feeling.
If you are in pain, make an appointment with a physical therapist, or a doctor first if you need a referral. Read your insurance or employer plan carefully, because it usually has information on what PT insurance would cover. Some employee benefits offer access to free online PT services. If you are uncertain where to go first, check out this video:
Helpful stretching, exercise and self-massage videos
After seeing a PT, you will likely be given exercises to do with props, like a lacrosse ball or foam roller. Definitely try all of these out under medical supervision first – for all of these, I was taught and watched by the PT who corrected my form and recommended certain props.
I have gathered a number of stretching and exercise videos you can watch to correct “forward head posture” and easing tension in your neck. They are under my DAOFitLife Tech Neck YouTube Playlist,
A number of props to make sure you have: a body band or towel, foam roller, and lacrosse ball or peanut.
Goalpost and W Stretches – Two Stretches without equipment
Going through each exercise would definitely take up more space than you have time to read, so I will leave you to explore the playlist.
They are 1) The Goalpost Stretch and 2) The W Stretch. The goalpost stretch helps open up the front of my body to counteract the forward leaning, and doing the “W” helps my posture
These also are pretty low key and don’t require a dedicated space of time (though it is for sure time worth making). The Goalpost stretch is something that is easy to to while you are waiting for the coffee to brew or fixing dinner in the kitchen (which you may be able to tell is where I am doing my stretch.). The W is something that you can do standing or seated. If you do not have time to watch all the videos, I have saved them to my DAOFitLIfe channel and you can jump over to this blog post to learn more about how to do these stretches.
As I learned from years of physical therapy, tightness in your neck is often connected to the muscles in your chest being tight – which can often result from collapisong forward. Dooing a doorway stretch by goalposing your arms and leaning forward will stretch out and relieve the tension.
I have taken a quick pic below of the “goalpost stretch”. As you may be able to tell, I am at a slight incline, about 30 degrees which I feel helps enhance the stretch in my chest and shoulders
If you want a handy PDF of exercises, check out this resource from back intelligence.