By now, you may be quite familiar with a catchy term called “text neck” that the media has been tossing around for the last several months. In fact, just last fall the New York Times called it “an ‘epidemic’ that could wreck your spine.”
Though text neck is not a clinical diagnosis, the theory behind it is intriguing and concerning. Research suggests that as the downward angle of the head increases (the way it must when we’re constantly looking down at our phones and other devices), so does the amount of weight the neck is forced to carry as a result. For example, the head placed at a 60-degree angle forces the cervical spine (neck) to hold the equivalent of 60 pounds. To put those numbers into perspective, the design of the cervical portion of the spine (your neck) is such that it is strong enough to carry your skull. The average human skull weighs about 12 pounds. In effect, these torqued angles we’re placing our necks at are putting up to five times the amount of pressure on them than they were designed to hold.
The bottom line? All those hours spent staring down at our smart phones is causing trouble for spinal alignment and we’re feeling the painful effects of it in the neck and in the back. But perhaps an even bigger question to ponder is this: What does it all mean for the future of spine health, especially among younger generations who are more reliant upon their tech devices than ever before. Let’s explore.
Early Wear and Tear – Wear and tear can present itself in many ways when it comes to the spine – affecting the discs, bones, joints and ligaments. However, it is usually a phenomenon that is witnessed most frequently in older adults. But today’s technological devices and the cumulatively thousands of hours people (especially young ones) spend on them is speeding up the unnatural wear and tear and conditions that would normally affect an older person may now present in younger individuals.
Degeneration – Degenerative Disc Disease of the cervical spine is the most common cause of neck pain. This disease can occur over time, when the early wear and tear described above continues and causes more significant and sometimes permanent damage. In addition to pain and stiffness in the neck, this condition can also cause tingling, numbness or general weakness in the shoulders and arms which can sometimes radiate all the way down to the fingers.
Spine Surgery – While most people who suffer from occasional neck pain won’t ever need surgery to correct it, there are some people who develop conditions so chronic and painful that they can only be treated with surgical intervention. We spine surgeons say that when one part of the spine fails, it puts the other parts of the spine at greater risk for injury and illness. Correcting these conditions as completely as possible is important for preserving the overall health of the rest of the spine. While there are now safer and more effective minimally invasive spine procedures than ever before, the best bet is prevention.
If you’re beginning to feel the effects of text neck, it’s important to recognize them and take action immediately. Since we know that the technology at our fingertips isn’t going away anytime soon, our best bet is to change the way we use it – for the health of our spines.
First – try addressing your device with your eyes, not your neck. Keep your head, neck and shoulder posture in a neutral position and look down at your device only with your eyes. Next – it’s never a bad 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. Finally, try cutting down some of your mobile screen time. Most of us don’t need to be looking at our phones as often as we do – it’s just a habit we’ve developed. Challenge yourself to give specific windows each day of “no device time.” Once you’ve mastered a week – try increasing those window intervals the following week, and so on. These may seem like small safeguards but they can have huge payoff rewards for your spine in the long-run.