• Siri, why does my neck hurt?

    by Dr. Niki Varveris, PT, DPT, MSPT, MBA, CKTP
    on Dec 3rd, 2017

No one grows up wishing to develop poor posture and yet posture, for the most part, is not something most kids and adolescents think twice about. In fact, most adults may fail to recognize signs of postural deviations until such changes have become problematic. Although certain pre-existing conditions of the skeletal system and some genetic factors may lead to postural abnormalities, daily activities and repetitive habits play a significant role in the development of poor posture over time. In the past, modifiable factors such as desks, chairs, and backpacks were to blame for creating hunchbacks and rounded shoulders. Luckily innovation in ergonomics has lead to the fabrication of workstations and backpacks that facilitate better postural alignment. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about advancement in technology. Smartphones, tablets, and portable devices, an integral part of life for people of all ages, are one of the leading causes of a new medical condition known as “text neck”. This posture is classified as a forward and excessive downward tilt of the head and may or may not be accompanied by slouching of the upper back.

Research has shown that 64 percent of Americans own a mobile device with an average of 700 to 1400 hours spent looking down each year at these devices. Postural alignment is in part influenced by the dynamic relationship between soft tissue flexibility, spinal mobility, and muscular strength. Thus, factors influencing these three components may bring about permanent structural change to the normal curvature of the spine. The forward-head tilt posture associated with text neck, according to New York Spine Care Specialist Dr. Hansraj, is equivalent to 60 pounds of force exerted on the cervical spine as compared to 12 pounds in an upright position. Imagine walking around with a 60-pound gym weight hanging around your neck! Initially, this extra stress on the spinal column may present as muscle soreness and neck pain. In the long term, however, this poor posture may lead to weakness of the muscles along the back of the neck, muscle tightness along the front of the neck and advanced degenerative changes in the cervical and thoracic vertebrae. If left untreated, this condition may ultimately result in the inability to lift and hold the head upright with possible adverse neurological side effects.

“Sit up straight!”- A phrase all too familiar to most parents of teenagers and perhaps even more common amongst spouses in their later years. Adding “… and lift your head up!” may be a more accurate instruction when addressing the text neck posture. Prevention, of course, is the ideal solution and can be as simple as bringing the screen to eye level in order to minimize the amount of forward-head tilt. Keeping in mind that the greater the head tilt, the greater the stress exerted by the weight of the head on the cervical spine. A good rule of thumb is to keep the shoulders aligned with the hips and the ears aligned with the shoulders. This neutral head position will result in the least amount of stress placed on the cervical spine. Holding the mobile device as vertical as possible will force the user to elevate the device to eye level in order to be able to read the screen. It goes without saying that limiting time spent on these gadgets is the best defense against developing text neck.

Once text neck has been identified as either a postural deviation or the source of neck pain, performing specific stretching and strengthening exercises may prove beneficial in reversing the problem and preventing future complications. Although a visit to a physician and physical therapist is recommended, stretching the chest, strengthening the shoulder blades and activating the deep neck muscles should be performed on a daily basis. Doorway stretches, shoulder blade pinches, and chin tucks are simple enough to do anywhere and anytime. Best of all, these exercises do not require expensive equipment or memberships.

Self-awareness of postural habits is the key to identification of the root cause of postural abnormalities including text neck. Next time you reach back to rub your sore neck, or you are experiencing neck pain when you “haven’t done anything to cause it”, stop and assess your daily postural habits! Although bad postural habits are difficult to break, time and effort spent on addressing these abnormalities is well worth it in the long run.

Author Dr. Niki Varveris, PT, DPT, MSPT, MBA, CKTP

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