Think about the number of times that you look down at your phone in a given day. You send emails, play your favorite songs, and explore brand new Aaptiv workouts. But, did you ever stop to think about the impact that all of that downward gazing might have on your spine? It’s called text neck, a supposed condition that can lead to shoulder pain, an achy neck, or chronic headaches. Some studies indicate that bending your neck forward in this way can lead to more than 60 extra pounds of weight on your cervical spine. Here’s what a few of our experts had to say about “text neck.” Find out what it is, how it impacts your spine, and ways you can reduce the effects—or at least aim to improve your posture along the way.
zWhat is “text neck,” and is it real?
This depends on your definition of real. Dr. Neel Anand, a professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, says it isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but the theory behind it is both 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 [that] the neck is forced to carry as a result,” he notes.
“Text neck is a very real thing, but due to technology as a whole, not just texting,” explains Dr. Jason Queiros, a chiropractor at Norwalk Sports & Spine. “Any action requiring prolonged looking down will reverse the curvature of the neck, causing everything from headaches to neck pain, and degeneration to numbness or tingling in the arm. It compresses the disc in the cervical spine due to the reversal of the curve and [the] added pressure on the joint and surrounding muscle.”
How exactly does looking down at a screen impact your spine and neck?
The amount of added pressure from looking down or forward, and the danger that it may create for your spine, is somewhat controversial. One study has famously claimed that tilting your head forward 15 degrees increases the force on your cervical spine to 27 pounds. So, bending your neck forward 60 degrees—related to the posture of people looking down at their phones—can shoot that amount of weight up to 60 pounds, due to gravity.
“The head placed at a 60-degree angle forces the cervical spine (neck) to hold the equivalent of 60 pounds,” agrees Dr. Anand. “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.”
Other experts have debated such findings. They primarily note that tilting your head forward only puts pressure on your spine if you’re applying extra weight directly to your head.
Your neck is definitely strained in some way.
Either way, it’s true that using a smartphone or computer all day can lead to extra strain on your neck, says Austin Misiura, a doctor of physical therapy and owner of Pure Physical Therapy in Miami, Florida. “A forward head position causes overstretching of the muscles behind your neck and excessive shortening of the muscles in front,” he states. “On top of being the place that most people hold their stress, this can add to the incidence of neck pain and discomfort, or could be a problem waiting to happen.”
Dr. Anand also argues that all those hours spent staring down at smartphones does indeed lead to painful effects in our neck and back. And, as we continue to be reliant on handheld technological devices, this shift in our default posture—head down repeatedly each day for lengthy periods of time—may cause long-term wear and tear degeneration of the cervical spine, or even the need for spinal surgery.
Dennis Enix, a doctor of chiropractic and associate professor of research at Logan University in St. Louis, also worries about the long-term effects, which could include herniated discs in the cervical spine, tension headaches, and neck sprains (similar to injury from whiplash). He also indicates that excessive head flexion and a hunched over posture can also cause breathing problems because it prevents the rib cage from full expansion.
What can you do to reduce the effects of “text neck”?
At its core, “text neck” really involves posture habits and managing use of technology in general—both of which are controllable factors.
Practice good posture habits all day.
“First, try addressing your device with your eyes, not your neck,” advises Dr. Anand. “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 your 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.”
Try neck exercises.
To counteract poor posture, Misiura recommends three exercises that help relieve tension or tightness, as well as activate your posterior chain, the muscles that help hold your neck and back upright.
- Diaphragm Breathing—“Lay on your back with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth, just behind your teeth. Keep lips closed. As you inhale through your nose, try to expand your belly like a balloon, without letting the hand on your chest move at all. On exhalation, sink your belly back down and let the hand on your chest remain stationary.”
- Prone Retraction—“Lay face down and place your hands at your sides, palms up. Raise your arms up towards the ceiling and reach towards your feet while you squeeze your shoulder blades together, lifting the front of your shoulders off the ground slightly. Slowly return to the starting position. Repeat for three sets of ten.”
- Deep Stabilizers—“While laying on your back, notice the space between your neck and the floor. Press the back of your neck into the floor to eliminate the space. Your head should tilt down slightly as you do this. Repeat for three sets of ten.”
Gauge your posture over time.
Dr. Todd Goldman of Total Chiropractic Care in Medford, New York, offers another solution for “text neck” or poor spine alignment. “Look at your profile in the mirror or have someone take a profile picture of you. You should be able to draw a vertical line from the middle of your ear to the middle of your shoulder. If your posture isn’t perfect, try doing shoulder extensions. Arch your neck and upper back backward, pulling your shoulders into alignment under your ears. This will take the stress off the muscles. Try to look forward, rather than tilting your chin down to read your phone, and raise your phone to eye level,” he says.
Finally, if you’re concerned about your posture, neck, or spine in relation to technology use (or in general), be sure to talk to your doctor. “If you’re beginning to feel the effects of text neck, it’s important to recognize them and take action immediately,” says Dr. Anand. “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.”