If you have pain or stiffness in your neck and spend a lot of time using mobile devices, it could be that you have what’s called “tech neck,” also sometimes known as “text neck.” Read on to learn what causes tech neck, how you can treat it, and how to avoid it in the first place.
Tech neck is a term used to describe an injury that results from repetitive use or stress of the muscles and connective tissues around the neck. You won't find this term in official medical books, partly because it's so new and accompanies the advent of portable electronic devices, like laptops, tablets, and mobile phones.
People with certain habits or professions are more prone to tech neck than others. In addition to young people, who often spend hours each day using their devices, people who work on portable devices tend to develop tech neck more frequently. Tech neck is a common problem for people who work in technology and for those who work at home where the office setup may be less than ideal. Working at the dining room table or on the sofa may cause poor posture, which contributes to tech neck.
Tech neck is usually diagnosed by an assessment of symptoms, as discussed below. Often the patient's history of using tech devices, coupled with postural and ergonomic issues, leads to a definitive diagnosis of tech neck. Before we talk about how tech neck is diagnosed in more detail, let's look at the typical symptoms of tech neck.
The most noticeable and intrusive symptom of tech neck is pain in the neck. You may also experience pain in nearby areas, such as the upper back or shoulders. The intensity and location of the pain may differ from person to person, or even for one individual over the course of a day.
You might feel a stabbing pain in one specific spot, or you may just feel achy and sore in the entire neck and upper back region. Your pain may become worse when you look down at a device or hold your neck in a position that originally caused your tech neck.
As a result of tech neck, you may also experience headaches. The pain referred from the neck to the head when neck muscles spasm can trigger your headaches. If you are using tech devices for hours every day, you may additionally have some eye strain, which only serves to compound any headaches already bothering you.
You may also notice reduced mobility in your neck and upper back. Muscle tightness may be worse when you awaken in the morning after sleeping in one position for a long time. In addition, you may notice decreased mobility after a long day of working with the devices that cause tech neck to begin with.
The longer you suffer from tech neck, the more you may notice changes to your posture, both from continuing to contort your body to look at your electronic devices and from reduced mobility due to pain and stiffness. Your shoulders may become rounded forward and you may sit with your head thrust forward, out of alignment with your spine.
If tech neck goes on for weeks or months, your muscles can become deconditioned. It can become uncomfortable to exercise, which leads to further deconditioning and further distorted posture.
You can suffer from balance issues if you experience tech neck for a prolonged time. This is because your head becomes out of balance with the rest of your body and is usually further forward, outside the ideal center of gravity. When this happens, the weight of the head can pull muscles forward, affecting change in the posture of your upper torso.
Some people with tech neck also experience jaw pain resulting from misalignment of the cervical spine, which is the upper part of your spine where your neck is located, or from muscle imbalances. In extreme conditions, this jaw pain can even become or exacerbate temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain.
While less common, tech neck can also cause cervical radiculopathy. You may have numbness or tingling in the arms or hands, like pins and needles when your hand falls asleep. Often this comes and goes, known as transient paresthesia.
Cervical radiculopathy is caused by irritation or compression of a nerve root in the neck area. Frequently people who experience cervical radiculopathy during bouts of tech neck also have preexisting spinal problems like degenerative disc disease or osteoarthritis. Tech neck typically makes these types of spinal changes worse. Neck problems that have been manageable or under control may suddenly flare up due to overuse or improper positioning when using mobile devices.
Tech neck is most often diagnosed with a good patient history and a physical exam. A medical doctor or chiropractor will inquire about device usage and work habits to try to match up symptoms with postural distortions that contribute to tech neck.
During the physical exam, your doctor will check your posture and examine the neck area for pain, muscle tightness, spasms, or point tenderness. You will be asked to move your head in different directions to see if your motion is restricted or if certain positions make your pain better or worse.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell if neck pain is caused by tech neck or by other more serious conditions, such as a herniated disc, fracture, or other condition. In this case, practitioners will use medical imaging, like x-rays or an MRI, to make a definitive diagnosis. It is possible as well to have nerve root compression from other conditions in addition to tech neck. Your treatment for tech neck will depend on whether it's compounded by other conditions that may require different treatment.
Fortunately, tech neck on its own is fairly straightforward to treat, and most people get good results and remission of their symptoms when they follow their doctor’s plan. Treatment typically consists of making changes to your posture when using electronic devices, coupled with stretches and exercises to improve range of motion and the strength in your neck.
There are multiple things you can do to alleviate tech neck pain:
You can do these exercises during work breaks, during your lunch hour, first thing in the morning when you wake up, and at the end of the day before you go to sleep. You can also combine them with exercises that you normally do when you work out. It may help to do some easy stretching before working out and again after to alleviate any residual neck pain and stiffness and to ward off worse symptoms.
Sometimes hot and/or cold therapy is helpful as well. You may be asked to apply a heating pad or hot towel to your neck and shoulders or to apply an ice pack, depending on your symptoms and whether or not these treatments provide relief. Usually, ice treatment (cryotherapy) is suggested when there is swelling, sharp pain, or point tenderness present, and heat is best for general muscle stiffness and overall achiness.
If you visit a chiropractor for tech neck, they have a range of other treatments at their disposal to help with your symptoms. Your chiropractor may recommend an adjustment to help with spinal misalignment that has either caused your tech neck or resulted from it.
Depending on the severity of your tech neck, your chiropractor may refer you to a physical therapist after a consultation. A physical therapist can not only suggest excellent exercises to reduce pain and increase mobility, but they can also watch to ensure that your exercises are being done properly and safely. Sometimes just one session with a physical therapist is sufficient, while other times you may need to attend multiple sessions during your course of treatment.
If you have another condition in addition to tech neck, your practitioner will likely recommend other treatment modalities or visits to a medical specialist who deals routinely with your condition, such as rheumatologists and neurologists.
Most of the same actions listed above to treat tech neck can be used to prevent it. It's important to note that taking breaks from your devices and using good posture aren't just temporary fixes for neck pain. They are lifestyle changes that can help prevent neck problems in general. As we become more dependent on electronic devices, these habits will become more and more helpful in staying healthy.
Other habits they can help prevent future bouts of tech neck include:
Any time pain is affecting your quality of life or altering your mood, it’s time to consult a professional. Numbness or tingling in the hands, jaw pain, headaches, and other extreme symptoms of tech neck are also indicators that a trip to the chiropractor is in order.
Because tech neck can also be confused with or exacerbated by other even more serious conditions, it’s important to get a diagnosis from a professional. A chiropractor can determine whether or not your neck pain and stiffness are something they can treat or whether you need to see another practitioner. They can obtain the proper medical images to ensure you don’t have a degenerative disc problem, arthritis, or another issue that complicates tech neck. If you are suffering from neck pain or think you have tech neck, get in touch with True Spine Chiropractic today. We’ll help you figure out what’s going on and make sure your body can heal so tech neck becomes a problem of the past.