If you’re one of the many people hunched over a laptop with your neck bent, are constantly looking down at your phone or spend many hours a day staring at a computer, be warned – you could be putting your body under strain.
“Text neck” is a uniquely 21st-century phenomenon and specialists are saying that modern technology is putting pressure on our health, changing our body shape and causing agony.
Dr Giresh Kanji, a chronic-pain specialist based in Wellington, New Zealand, is seeing increasing numbers of people, including teenagers, whose health has been affected by their use of technology.
“Every 10 degrees you look down, your head weight doubles on your neck – from five kilograms when looking straight ahead to 50 kilograms when looking down at your phone or computer – crushing the discs of your lower neck,” Kanji says. “Every second the pressure is cumulative – 30,000 units of impulse per minute and more than 1.5 million units of impulse per hour on the lower neck discs.”
Auckland-based postural structural specialist Michelle Owen explains the movement in simplistic terms, comparing it to a stack of bricks.
“If one of those bricks has slid forward, like a head would, then there is a lot of weight on the neck, on the back – and those pressure points over time create a lot of discomfort.”
The situation intensifies when bad posture is carried throughout life, Owen says.
“If you imagine bending a toothpaste tube, that is the same as bending your spine. When that tube has been bent into a position for a long time, it causes toothpaste to squirt out of the tube. That’s what happens to a disc in someone’s back – it squirts out the back when it is put under pressure for a long time.
“That places massive pain on the nerves. If people are getting to that degree, they might first have to have surgery before they can be assisted.”
Kanji has just released a book called Fix Your Neck Pain Headache & Migraine. He is also chairman of the New Zealand Pain Foundation, set up in 2013 to research back and neck pain as well as headaches and migraines. He says people come to his clinic every day complaining of neck issues that have resulted from looking at tablets, laptops and phones.
“Older people present with narrowed discs and bony spurs pressing on nerves, causing significant pain.”
Even Kanji has not been immune to poor posture – time spent hunched over a computer, investigating chronic pain for his PhD, resulted in him joining the ranks of the very people he is working to help. In a general sense, posture problems are not new, Kanji says.
“They have been around a long time. Repetitive strain injury (RSI) epidemics swept the world with the introduction
“New technologies were introduced around the world and people were suddenly fixed to their screens and, because people couldn’t touch type, they were looking down at their keyboards all day. And this resulted in neck pain which spread to the arms,” says Kanji.
The difference between then and now is the age of people who are starting to come forward with these problems.
“What we are seeing is a lot younger people experiencing neck pain and headaches, because of their use of technology such as laptops, tablets and smart phones.
“At least once a week we are seeing a teenager with head and neck pain symptoms. Last year we had a patient who had to be off school for a year because of her headache, migraine and neck-pain symptoms.”
Owen was a personal trainer until she started suffering from postural issues. “In those days, I didn’t know what they were.” Today she is a trained Chek (corrective holistic exercise kinesiologist) practitioner with more than 20 years of experience.
Owen says people worldwide have issues with posture, but technology use often heightens our awareness to the problems we are causing our bodies.
At health events, Owen finds that almost every person she assesses – athlete or not – will have some form of postural problem. She says people simply do not know how to correct their issues.
“Many people sitting at computers have a forward-head posture simply because they don’t know where to hold or stack their body up.
“As a result, people get pain as well as things such as pins and needles shooting through their hands and feet. It is a really common postural problem,” says Owen.
“Often clients ask me if they should sit on a Swiss ball or some sort of fancy chair to help with the improvement of their body position at work. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what you are sitting on – there is no special chair that will resolve things if you don’t know where your body should be to take the stress off the neck, upper or lower back.”
The Holy Grail in postural wellness is realising good posture means a lot more than standing up straight.
“It’s very easy to say, you need to stack your body up straight … our mind is so hardwired from years and years and years of our position, which starts in childhood, it takes skilled work to correct it properly.” Kanji says a lot of pain tends to be caused by gravitational pressure.
“We have discs in our spine, both neck and back, and as we slowly squash our discs, the fluid from our discs goes into the bones and the discs narrow.”
Postural pressure can cause you to lose about a couple of centimetres in height during the day, he says.
“As we go to sleep the fluid returns and you can be 2.5cm taller when you wake. “Your neck is usually a C shape with your head sitting on top. Your neck in this position essentially acts as a spring.
“It gets compressed during the day, but then it expands again. When you look down, the shape of your neck changes – it can become straight. And if it becomes straight, then gravity loads the bottom discs and there is no spring.”
Kanji says our thinking needs to change to stop an epidemic of postural problems and pain.
“Across industries people really need to learn to touch type because even if your screen is at eye level where it should be, if you are looking down at your keyboard all of the time, you are just effectively compressing your neck discs. Learning to use your equipment correctly for your posture is important.”
Back to Basics: What we can do to fix it
• Learn to touch type. If you don’t have to look down at a keyboard, your posture can be significantly improved.
• Raise your screen height to eye level.
• If you are using a laptop for more than five or 10 minutes, put it on a box and use a keyboard and mouse extension.
• Get up out of your chair every 20 or 30 minutes if you are in a sedentary job. You can get computer programmes that prompt you to do so with pop-up messages or by shutting down your screen.
• Daily pain produces chemicals that produce more pain. To burn stress chemicals, you need to get your heart rate up and sweat. Exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress chemicals, but it needs to be relatively rigorous to the point where your heart rate increases.
• Use a tablet case that props up your device at a comfortable viewing angle rather than sitting it in your lap.