There are alarming reports of the upsurge of the amount of teenagers and children presenting to their GP and indeed physiotherapist with neck pain. First up neck pain in general is very common and usually nothing to worry about with adults. As we get older and some degenerative changes occur it will affect up to 70% of the adult population at some point in their lives. The worrying thing about neck pain, and its now well established association with smart phone use, is the amount of younger people presenting with it.
The spine is designed to allow optimal movement occur where it is needed for function. In the case of the neck it needs the ability to: turn around such as to check blind spots when driving, look up when you feel that first drop of rain or look down to check what you’ve missed out on Twitter since you last checked 5 minutes ago. Leave the neck in any of those positions for a long period of time and the muscles attaching around the areas will shorten or familiarise themselves with this position. The case of waking up with a ‘crick’ in the neck due lying all night in an awkward position is all too familiar. But lately the case of ‘text neck’ is often more to blame. From what started out as a simple look down at the phone in response to a text message has escalated into a Facebook post, a quick selfie, a Twitter update, a 4 way natter on Whatsapp followed by an upload of the aforementioned selfie on Instagram (complete with relevant setting to mask the pale exhausted complexion). All of a sudden you’ve been in this abnormal position for maybe 20 minutes. So is it surprising the soft tissue structures around the area start to get a little bit cranky?
What actually happens?
We learn through repetition. It’s how athletes train to perform complex tasks, how musicians learn complex pieces, how babies learnt to crawl and tie their shoe laces, and how surgeons perform open heart surgery. They practice over and over again. And with the case of this poor postural position causing neck pain if we’re spending more time gazing downwards at the screen this will become the more learned, habitual position. The neck has a natural curve to allow each vertebrae communicate and articulate with the one above and below it. Prolonged hanging of the head downwards causes the neck to poke forward, shoulders to rotate forwards, the middle of the spine hunches forwards and the shoulder blades rotate upwards and forwards.
And in the case of ‘text neck’ as that head goes further into flexion as the chin gets closer to the chest the load being transferred through the spine becomes unevenly distributed. The head weighs around 10lbs. If this poor postural position is adopted that weight can be increased to up to 60lbs based on physics and law of the lever. That’s fine for short periods but it’s quite a bit of weight hinging off the neck for long durations.
What to do?
The easiest yet most unrealistic thing to say is ditch the phone for periods during the day. Much like nutritional or exercise advice, use in moderation applies here also. The reality is our lives now revolve around such technology, like it or not. The day to day running of my physiotherapy clinic is reliant on it: from using app’s to record and measure movement to making appointments for patients.
Here are some simple steps to try to reverse or prevent some of the physical changes that take place.
- bring the phone higher closer to eye level so your neck is not in this over flexed position. It will mean less stress hinging of the base of the neck.
- A nice exercise is a chin tuck where the eye line will stay parallel with the ground as the chin is tucked inwards, and with this one the end result will mean creating a double chin. Pause for a moment and repeat that process 10 times.
- Pinching the shoulder blades together will give a stronger foundation for the neck to sit on top of. So pinching them together, holding for 3 seconds and slowly releasing. 15 repetitions.
So if you’re reading this on your phone, firstly thanks for reading. But now try some of those simple exercises and make it part of your day. In the same way that a slight tilt of the neck forwards and downwards while on the smart phone can cause these problems a small effort to take yourself out of this compromising position can make a big difference for the better too.
For more information on any of the issues addressed throughout this article please contact Rob via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @mccabephysio, Facebook at McCabe Physiotherapy or visit http://www.mccabephysiotherapy.com
Rob McCabe MISCP
MSc (pre reg) Physiotherapy, BSc Sport Science and Health, MSc Sports Physiotherapy, PG Dip Orthopaedic Medicine
Orchard House, Moorefield Rd, Newbridge, Co. Kildare