Signs You Could Have ‘Tech Neck’ and Physical Therapist Tips to Treat it
Learn how “tech neck” may be causing neck pain, symptoms of tech neck, and how to treat it, including stretching exercises from our physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Steven Goostree, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What is “tech neck,” exactly? Turns out, it’s pretty common. The average person spends more than four hours each day looking at their phone, according to a 2022 survey. This can contribute to tech neck or neck pain from repetitive strain on your neck muscles.
Next time you’re waiting in line at a store, at the airport, or on public transportation, look around at everyone using their phones. “You’ll notice that everyone’s head is protruded forward as they look down at their phone,” says Steve Goostree, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “Over time, that can cause both neck and upper back pain.”
Let’s get real though: Phones are a big part of our daily routines. In fact, many people look down at their phones all day long and don’t experience neck pain or stiffness. But there are a few key things you can do to reduce your risk of experiencing tech neck symptoms. Here’s what physical therapists recommend.
Symptoms of Tech Neck
You may be experiencing tech neck if you notice the following:
Pain or stiffness in your neck, upper back, or shoulders
Reduced mobility in your neck, upper back, or shoulders
Numbness or tingling down your arms
What Causes Tech Neck?
Your neck muscles work hard all day long to support your head. When you’re looking down at your phone or sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time, the muscles in your neck have to work extra hard to support your head in these positions. Although your muscles are strong and your neck is resilient, doing this too much, or too often, can make your muscles sore and tight.
Think about it like this: Bicep curls can be an effective way to challenge and strengthen your muscles. But if you held a dumbbell in a bicep curl for hours without taking a break, your arm would feel stiff, tired, and achy, wouldn’t it?
The upside is that the solution to tech neck isn’t a matter of avoiding looking at your phone altogether, but rather incorporating more movement throughout your day with gentle neck stretches and changing your position more frequently.
How to Treat Tech Neck
Get up and move. If you sit a lot at your job, get up and move around every 30 to 60 minutes. This will send oxygenated blood to tired muscles and help remove chemicals in your body that can cause inflammation and pain. Plus, you’ll naturally move your neck into different positions without even thinking about it.
Adjust your chair. Place a cushion or pillow behind your low back when you work, suggests Dr. Goosetree. That should help you shift out of your normal sitting position and take some pressure off your neck muscles so they aren’t as strained.
Raise your phone and computer. Aim to have your phone and your computer close to eye level, advises Dr. Goostree. If you have a laptop, consider a wireless keyboard, which will allow you to keep your screen at eye level while your hands work at a lower level.
Get a massage. A 2020 study published in the journal Musculoskeletal Science Practice found that people with neck pain who got six massages over a six-week period reported less pain after three months than those who didn’t get them. People who combined massage with exercise reported the greatest relief. You can also add warm heat to your rubdown, to help loosen sore muscles, advises Dr. Goostree.
Relaxation exercises. Stress can worsen neck tension and thus cause more pain. Try simple relaxation exercises at your desk: take a deep breath in, hold for a few seconds, and then exhale.
Stretches for Your Neck
“You want to keep your neck muscles and joints mobile,” says Dr. Goostree. When your neck is more flexible, it can reduce strain on your muscles and improve mobility and function. Translation: You may experience less pain and stiffness.
A 2017 review published in the South African Journal of Physiotherapy, for example, looked at eight studies and found that basic strengthening and stretching neck exercises helped relieve neck pain in office workers. Aim to stretch for five to 10 minutes each day. Some good options include:
How to Prevent Tech Neck
Even if you’re not experiencing symptoms of tech neck, it’s a good idea to develop healthy tech and ergonomic habits. Consider these tips:
Go on a “tech diet.” Set some reasonable limits on your screen time. If you need to be on your computer for work — but not your phone — then keep your phone out of sight so you’re less tempted to use it. Build tech breaks into your day, like a 10-minute walk during lunch. When you’re off hours, use a screen monitoring app.
Consider a standing desk. A CDC study found that when workers used standing desks for about an hour a day, they reduced their upper back and neck pain by 54%. Make sure you set it up correctly. Raise your desk to the height of your elbows. Your monitor should be positioned so that you can see the screen without having to angle your head and neck forward. Or if you have a laptop, perch your computer on a high counter or cabinet for bouts of time throughout the day.
Adjust your workstation. These little changes can help prevent you from putting strain on your neck:
Keep your line of sight parallel to the floor.
Make sure your chair has good back support.
Adjust your chair so that your knees are level with your hips.
Prop your computer on a stack of books so that the monitor is at eye level.
Stay active. Regular aerobic exercise (elliptical, stationary bike, swimming, or brisk walking) strengthens the neck and upper back muscles, which can help prevent tech neck. It’s also important to exercise upper back muscles, which will help them stay strong and flexible as you age. Good moves include scapular squeezes, standing push-ups, and resistance band rows.
Lighten your load. Declutter heavy backpacks and over-the-shoulder purses. Try not to cave into cranky toddlers who expect you to carry them. Wheeled backpacks and strollers are good alternatives.
Sleep smart. If you sleep on your back, use a small pillow under the nape of your neck and put a pillow under your knees to support your spine and relax neck muscles. If you sleep on your side, use enough pillows to keep your neck straight in line with your body. Avoid stomach sleeping.
When to See a Doctor
Most of the time, you can manage tech neck on your own with some tweaks to your office space, regular exercise, and stretches. See a healthcare provider if your pain is severe and makes it hard to do everyday activities or if it doesn’t improve in a couple of weeks. You should also see a doctor if you have numbness or tingling in your arms and legs or if your neck pain occurs with headache, dizziness, nausea, or vomiting.
PT Tip: Take Water Breaks
Your muscles need fluid to stay hydrated. If you don’t get enough, your neck muscles can contract or spasm, which makes symptoms of tech neck worse, says Dr. Goostree. There’s also another reason to guzzle that water: It will encourage you to take more bathroom breaks so that you build some activity into your day.
Learn More About Hinge Health for Neck Pain Relief
Our digital programs for back and joint pain are offered for free through benefit providers. Click here to see if you’re eligible.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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