Prolonged use of handheld devices with the neck in a flexed position is what causes “text neck,” an overuse syndrome that triggers neck and shoulder pain. “Simply put, text neck is the pain and injury one experiences from looking down to use a smartphone or other device too much,” explains Todd H. Lanman, MD, who specializes in spinal neurosurgery in Beverly Hills, California.
The symptoms of text neck range from mild to severe. “Mild text neck may cause only soreness in the neck muscles; however, severe text neck may cause headaches, tingling and numbness in the arms, and vertebral disc damage—sometimes requiring surgery,” Dr. Lanman says.
Text neck is actually just a new name for an old condition. “Spinal surgeons have long known that people who work in professions that require long periods of neck flexion—including manicurists, surgeons, desk workers, and factory line operators—develop neck and shoulder pain, and arm pain with numbness and tingling,” Dr. Lanman says. The behavior can affect people at any age, but it’s particularly dangerous for kids and teens. “Not only do young people tend to use their handheld devices for longer periods, but the developing neck and spine is more susceptible to these abnormal forces,” Dr. Lanman says. “I’ve certainly noticed an increase in young people with neck and shoulder pain in my practice.”
An obvious way to avoid developing text neck and neck problems is to put down the smartphone already. You can even use your old cell phone in these 12 genius ways that can only help you and others. But since few people, especially teens and young adults, are willing to stop texting, a more realistic goal is to change the way you hold handheld devices. “The more you can keep your neck in a neutral, upright position, the less likely you are to develop text neck,” Dr. Lanman says. “Ideally, one would hold the head with the ears in line with the shoulders, holding the device at eye level. The more one’s neck is bent, the greater the forces on the neck.” Studies show that sitting while texting is the worst—texting while standing is a little better for avoiding neck problems.
If you’re beginning to feel the effects of text neck, it’s important to recognize them and take action, advises Neel Anand, MD, clinical professor of surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. “Try addressing your device with your eyes, not your neck,” he says. “Keep your head, neck, and shoulder posture in a neutral position and look down at your device only with your eyes.” It’s also a good idea to do some neck strengthening exercises: Slowly move the head from left to right, then up and down. Repeat a few times each day.
Dr. Lanman also recommends exercises specifically for strengthening the back of the neck. “Rowing exercises are perhaps the best as they strengthen the shoulders and upper back and neck muscles to better accommodate the tremendous forces that one places on them while texting,” he says.
Text neck, though it may sound trendy, is most certainly a real issue, so much so that Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine in Poughkeepsie, New York, conducted a study in 2014 to evaluate the impact of the growing epidemic. “People don’t realize that this affects everything from posture to the possibility of slipped discs,” he says. “Posture issues from text neck can lead to conditions such as cracks in the discs, herniated discs, stenosis, pinches nerves, and more. An average head can weigh around 10 to 12 pounds in a neutral position, and through my study it was determined that looking down 15 degrees can increase the impact on the neck by 27 pounds; a 60-degree angle can put an astounding 60 pounds of pressure on the neck.” Here are more tips you can use to improve your posture and reduce neck problems.