A Giant Pain in the Neck

WORKING AND SCHOOLING FROM HOME HAS GIVEN RISE TO A NEW KIND OF EPIDEMIC AMID THE PANDEMIC. THE RISE OF “TECH NECK”.

Curled up on the couch or hunched over the kitchen or dining table working away for hours on a laptop – sound familiar? Our homes generally aren’t designed to be ergonomically correct working conditions – and using household furniture as ad hoc “work stations” can wreak havoc on the body.

A phrase coined in the early days of smart phones and laptops, “tech neck” refers to the condition of cervical kyphosis – an over-pronounced slouch due to spending hours hunching over devices, associated with neck and back pain and poor posture.

But with many of us now working from home in the age of COVID, or at least more often, bodywork professionals are reporting a significant increase in the number of cases they’re seeing.

“Being in an aligned posture – ribs stacked right over your pelvis and your head stacked right over your ribs – and breathing diaphragmatically are key.”

The condition is caused by repeatedly craning the head down and forward to look at a screen, applying excess pressure – up to 20kg – on bones and muscle meant to handle only an average 5kg (the head’s weight at neutral). It can feel like a strain at the neck, stiffness in the shoulders, might result in headaches, and can do worse damage to the spine over time.

“In general, it affects the upper limb – that is, from the neck to the waist,” says Gabrielle Street, physiotherapist and Clinical Partnerships Manager at XR Health.

Gabrielle says even if we’re not set up in ideal ergonomic conditions, the main thing is to be looking at devices from eye level.

Whether sitting, or upright at a standing desk while working, being in an aligned posture – ribs stacked right over your pelvis and your head stacked right over your ribs – and breathing diaphragmatically are key. Improper posture causes the head, shoulders, and middle back to pull forward, which triggers the muscles in that area to try to pull them back into alignment.

Shallow breathing is another potential trigger for neck discomfort. People, especially when they’re stressed, who tend to be chest breathers, or shallow breathers, rely on their accessory breathing muscles, like the upper trapezius muscles and pectoral muscles, rather than the diaphragm (which allows deep belly breaths).

Jaw issues can also be a cause (see story over the page) and may need dental treatment to resolve.

Stretching plays an important role in preventing or alleviating muscle soreness and stiffness, says Gabrielle.

Gabrielle recommends daily neck stretches: Lower your chin toward your chest and hold for 15-30 seconds. Relax, and slowly lift your head back up. Tilt your chin up toward the ceiling and bring the base of your skull toward your back. Hold for 10 seconds, then return to the start position. Then stretch the neck to the right and then left, holding in each position for 15-30 seconds. The stretches can de done either seated or standing.

You will feel some tension in the neck muscles but you shouldn’t have pain. If you do, stop right away. You may need to see a doctor, physiotherapist or other qualified bodywork practitioner to understand what might be causing that neck discomfort.

As far as the beauty space goes, “tech neck” has come to mean a tendency to fine lines forming just under the chin and neck from poor posture. Wrinkles set in faster with repeated motions and movements, so if you are regularly staring down at your phone or laptop, you’re increasing the likeliness of them forming.

Cosmetic doctors around the world are reporting an increase in patients seeking treatment – not for their posture or neck pain, but for issues like generally sagging, tired skin, jowling around the jawline, and creases and stress lines around the neck, leading thousands to an upsurge in treatments such as with laser and ultrasound devices or surgical help.

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