As technology continues to grow and improve, is it possible that it's also contributing to health issues? Laborers who have had a traditional job for decades will say they've been dealing with backaches and other aches and pains as they age. Recently, more scientists and doctors have suggested that overuse of mobile devices like cell phones or laptops may lead to persistent chronic pain (1). This phenomenon has become popularly coined as “text neck” -- referring to the neck pain, discomfort, or damage that typically occur after hunching over a mobile device for long continuous hours without paying attention to the physical stress these actions might cause.
So is text neck real? In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between texting and neck pain, and whether texting directly causes neck pain. We will also talk you through how to limit the risk of neck pain onset if you use handheld devices, and how to limit neck pain if it develops.
What’s the Relationship Between Texting and Neck Pain?
Studies investigating the correlation between device usage and pain in the neck, shoulders and even the arms are varied but solid: it's a real problem. In National Public Radio's All Tech Considered, Lily Newman states that "evidence is mixed when it comes to how long you should hold your smartphone." On Harvard Medical School's website, Dr. Samuel Yen mentions how "looking down at a smartphone or laptop for long periods can create neck pain" and also decreases stature. According to Men's Health Magazine, complex technology can cause neck/shoulder trouble, because we didn’t evolve using [it]. However, other studies like one conducted by Research Center Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna CNR and Italy’s Department of Public Health found little or no association between device usage and pain.
The difficulty of assessing the relationship between texting and neck pain is complicated by psychological factors that modify physiological outcomes. For example, if you think you're texting too much, your body may manifest that experience by getting more and more tense. More research is needed to understand the exact nature of what goes on when it comes to text messaging and neck pain.
Does Texting Directly Cause Neck Pain?
Although some studies suggest a correlation between neck pain and texting, there is no clear causative relationship (5). Bearing that in mind, one study by Kyphosis Conferences showed an increase in forward head posture while performing activities such as electronic device use. Whether the increased bending of the neck specifically causes pain is still contested, but it’s fair to say that people tend to hunch over when using electronic devices like cell phones or iPads, so whether there’s an actual direct link between this angle and subpar neck posture remains debatable (6).
Some scientists believe almost everyone suffers from neck pain at some point in their lives, and that excessive use of electronic devices may worsen any existing neck pain. If you regularly use smart phones, tablets or video games, this may also apply to you.
How Can I Limit My Risk of Neck Pain?
If you're working on computers or mobile devices daily, take note of the time your neck is bent when you use it.
Check if your office area is ergonomically set up, so that you don't make your body uncomfortable in any way. Move it closer to eye level, prop it up in front of you, or perhaps do some rearranging to improve how comfortable your toes are! Many studies have been conducted, which suggest tablets are harder on the spine than laptops or cell phones. Try minimizing use with tablets and perhaps replacing it with another device entirely. Most importantly, and sometimes most easily overlooked: get enough rest from them! Be sure to fit breaks into your day every so often, and observe how safe/comfortable you feel when using them for longer periods, as well as when typing rapidly.
While your smartphone may be relatively harmless, it's easy to become conditioned to hold other types of electronics in an unnatural position while texting, scrolling and checking emails (and more). If this sounds familiar, try adjusting the ergonomics of your workspace at work or home, so as to reduce strain on your neck and upper back. For example: place devices at eye level for easier typing or propping them up in front of you; adjust chairs in a way that keeps shoulders from slouching forward; or positioning laptops on top of small stacks of books to help increase comfort. Keep in mind that tablet use may lead to increased neck pain due to the often elevated angle at which one must hold them (8).
If I Do Develop Neck Pain, How Should I Treat It?
For those suffering from neck pain, physical therapy should be a cornerstone of treatment. There’s significant scientific evidence supporting physical therapy as an effective, low-risk option for relieving neck pain. In fact, you may wish to discuss a referral to a local physical therapist with your primary healthcare provider.
Heat therapy is one of the most effective ways to relieve sore muscles in the neck area. The heat relaxes tense muscle tissue through two processes: heat-induced vasodilation, which increases blood flow and speeds up muscle recovery, and the fact that the increased temperature will distract you from the pain (14).
Heat can be used to treat sore muscles by either taking a hot shower; holding a warm towel over it, preferably with a herbal heating pad or with towels soaked in hot water; or applying heat directly to your neck with friction from a heating pad for about 10-15 minutes. Be sure to protect your skin (you don't have to pull out your grandma's old face mask) by wrapping hot objects in something that isn't necessarily soft - like an old towel - before putting them on or around your skin (so as not to burn yourself).
Cold therapy can help ease muscle pain and even treat chronic conditions by numbing areas of the body in pain from strain, injury or inflammation. There are various ways to benefit from this treatment: either purchase a cold therapy pack at your local pharmacy or order one online from Sacksy thyme; use the directions on the packaging with whichever type of cold therapy you decide to buy.
As with most things in life, when you're experiencing so much pain that it's interfering with your daily activities and making it difficult to even think straight, the best thing to do is see your doctor and get a diagnosis that will enable you to figure out what kind of treatment plan would best suit your needs. Just remember that there are always choices open to you - but it is worth understanding those choices, because certain types of medication, like over-the-counter pills, can be beneficial in relieving symptoms of debilitating pain and inflammation, while still allowing you the time to follow up with a physical therapist. Yet if your symptoms have been linked back to muscle issues, prescribed medications such as diclofenac gel might be a better option for treating acute neck pain (12); although severe muscle inflammation can lead to more extreme cases requiring the use of muscle relaxants or antidepressants.
NSAIDs carry a risk of heart problems and stomach pain. They can cause side effects such as fatigue, nausea, and drowsiness in some types of cases. Muscle relaxants may cause dry mouth, and antidepressants may cause dizziness, headaches, sweating, and various other side effects. Speak to your healthcare provider about your personal and family medical history to determine the potential benefits and effects of pain medications for you.
It's important to always be proactive about the health of your neck. While research is mixed on the effect of tablet and phone usage on our necks, some chiropractors recommend limiting time spent looking at your phone or using tablets due to the chance of developing neck pain in response. Good posture while looking at devices will also help prevent stiffness and soreness. It is always best to contact a medical professional who can provide guidance specific for your needs.