When Tech Is a Pain in the Neck

Smartphones and tablets have reinvented the world as we know it. We’re now in a constant state of connection — whether it be for work or for play. Business partners keeping up with their latest meetings and e-mails, busy parents arranging their jam-packed calendars, college students studying for exams and people of all ages scrolling through photos via countless social media accounts all have something in common — they’re all at risk for something that has been popularly termed as “tech neck.”

Unfortunately, with the booming popularity of smartphones, eye strain and carpal tunnel aren’t the only health risks to being online anymore. Though it isn’t necessarily a medical term, tech neck is a condition caused by craning one’s neck while staring down into a smartphone, tablet or other handheld device. Doing this at length encourages an unnatural head position that places increased stress on the neck, upper back and arms. The simple movement of looking down to do something on your phone doesn’t require much exertion so it may not seem harmful, but it’s the duration and repetition of working against the body mechanics that set us up for pain and potential injury. Get this — the human head in an upright position weighs 10 to 12 pounds. But when bent down at a 45-degree angle (the position commonly used for staring into a smartphone screen), the weight and pressure increase to almost 50 pounds on the cervical spine. That’s a much more massive load than it’s designed to carry. Bending the head at this angle repeatedly over time can lead to muscular strain, disc injury and even arthritic changes to the neck — not to mention consistent neck pain.

[See: 5 Bodyweight Exercises to Fix Your Posture.]

So, what can be done to mediate this global problem? Unless you’re willing to give up your cell phone, there are body mechanic strategies you can practice to be mindful of your neck and back. The first strategy is merely being aware of the impact that poor posture has on your cervical spine, and if you’re reading this, you’re already on your way. The good news? There are many ways to avoid straining while using a handheld device:

1. Take breaks. If you can’t seem to limit the amount of time and frequency that you use your phone, make sure to take breaks in between to change position and readjust your posture. A three-minute break every 15 to 20 minutes can help realign your spine and give those neck and upper back muscles a chance to rest. You can even use the alarm on your device to remind you when to take a break from looking down at your phone. Added bonus: Doing this will also help your eyes.

2. Try changing positions. Holding your smartphone up to eye level may not make you look as cool, but it will definitely relieve the strain from your neck. But don’t neglect your arms while doing this. Support your arms and elbows by propping them on a table or armrest while sitting; when you’re standing, try not to raise them more than countertop level. Being mindful of the placement of your arms can dramatically reduce the strain on the shoulders. Also, if you are in a comfortable location like your house, laying on your back while working on a device is a great way to relieve pressure on the neck. Get comfortable on the couch or your bed with some pillows and work away.

[See: 10 Ways Poor Posture Can Harm Your Health.]

3. Continually practice good posture. Posture is one of those things that improves the more you practice it. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but as we continue to align our bodies with a healthy posture, we’re working the right muscles. They, in turn, become stronger and develop muscle memory to maintain our bodies in their proper positions. Eventually, poor posture will start to feel uncomfortable. Keep your head up, shoulders back and chin tucked in just a bit. Whenever you feel yourself straying, pull your body back to this position throughout the day.

4. Stretch it out. Keeping the neck and upper back muscles warm and flexible will reduce your risk for pain and injury, and you can do them virtually anywhere.

Chin tuck: Move your chin down towards your chest, hold for 5 seconds and repeat as many times as you like to feel a gentle pull from your neck to the base of your skull.

Side bending: Tilt your head down and to the right and then repeat on the left, alternating sides, bringing your ear as close to the shoulder as possible. Hold for about 20 seconds.

[Read: How (and Why) to Throw a Device-Free Party.]

Side rotation: Instead of bending, rotate your chin to the right and left sides, again holding for 20 seconds. For an extra deep stretch, you can even use your hand to push your head a little bit farther.

Most importantly, let pain be a warning. If you start to experience neckaches or pain from smartphone use, listen to what your body is telling you and take the precautions necessary to protect it in this busy, connected world.

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When Tech Is a Pain in the Neck originally appeared on usnews.com