Mobile devices like cellular phones have become a common part of daily life. Despite the advantages of this technology, there are also health risks associated with prolonged and improper uses of these devices. One such risk is the strain to the neck and upper back when using mobile phones. This is known as text neck and can cause serious musculoskeletal problems in the long term.
What is text neck?
Text neck is a common term for an overuse syndrome associated with prolonged use of mobile devices like cellular phones. It is a result of looking down at a phone for long periods of time which results in a repetitive stress injury to the neck and upper back. As a result there is pain in the neck, upper back and shoulder, sometimes with pain, tingling or numbness down the arm.
Studies have shown that text neck is becoming a common cause of neck and upper back pain, especially in the 18 to 44-year age group. Text neck syndrome can be treated and prevented. However, when treatment is delayed and preventative measures are not implemented then it can lead to complications which often involve the vertebral column and spinal nerves.
Causes of Text Neck
The muscles of the neck and upper back help to move and stabilize the neck which in turn supports the head. When the head is stooped forward and downward then the strain on the neck increases substantially. This is a common position that most people employ when using their mobile phone while standing or sitting.
The degree of strain varies based on the duration as well as angle that the head is tilted forward. This strain is the lowest when the head and neck are upright with the ears in the same plane as the shoulders. However, tilting forward just 15 degrees can double the strain on the neck while a 60-degree forward tilt can multiple the force on the neck by 5 to 6 times.
Apart from the muscles of the neck and back, there is also strain on ligaments and the vertebral column. It may contribute to early wear and tear on the spine and degeneration of the discs between the spinal bones (known as the intervertebral disc). Another complication is compression of the cervical nerve roots which can extend symptoms beyond the neck and back to the arms.
This type of posture and subsequent neck strain is not unique to mobile phone use. It also occurs with looking down over a desk or similar activities for long periods of time. Laptops and tablet computers can also be a problem although mobile phones are more commonly used. The problem is with the position of the head rather than the specific device.
Previously it was mainly seen as an occupational overuse syndrome or repetitive stress injury. Students were also prone to this type of injury. However, with the widespread and prolonged use of mobile phones, it is now becoming more common in younger people and occurs independent of a person’s occupation.
Signs and Symptoms
There may be little to no symptoms with short term use of a mobile phone even when there is stooping forward and downward. In fact, even prolonged mobile phone use may not cause any symptoms if a person does not tile the head forward but instead holds the device up to eye level while maintaining an optimal head position.
Gradually symptoms develop and worsen, especially with repeated episodes of prolonged mobile use where the head is tilted forward. This ongoing behavior compounds text neck syndrome and eventually leads to complications such as a pinched neck nerve which can further contribute to the symptoms.
The symptoms of text neck syndrome includes:
- Neck stiffness is one of the most common symptoms of text neck syndrome. There is limited range of motion of the neck, which may be one-sided or affect both sides.
- Neck pain and upper back pain which may radiate to the shoulders and down the arms. The pain may vary in severity and nature from a dull ache to severe sharp pains.
- Muscle spasm or muscle tightness in the neck and upper back. The area feels firm to hard and is usually tender at certain points.
- Headaches that may be diffuse (pain throughout the head) or worse at the back of the head, temples or top of the head. It may be worse with looking down.
- Tingling and/or numbness in the shoulders and down the arms along with muscular weakness may also affect the neck and upper back muscles.
Medication such as painkillers and muscle relaxants may offer short term symptomatic relief. Short term neck immobilization with a soft cervical (neck) collar may also help in easing the strain on the muscles. Heat therapy may also offer short term relief but should be avoided if it aggravates the pain and other symptoms.
However, the symptoms will return and persist unless preventative measures are also implemented. Various techniques to ease muscle tension and restore neck flexibility should be performed by a physical therapist. This should be done along with daily exercises to stretch and strengthen the neck and upper back muscles.
Prevention of Text Neck Syndrome
- Hold the mobile device at eye level to avoid tilting the head forward and downward. Ensure that a good posture is maintained at all times.
- Reduce mobile device usage. Even when holding the device at eye level, there is still some degree of strain to the muscles by supporting the device in this position.
- Regular breaks during periods of prolonged use of a device can help to reduce the strain on the muscles. Try to schedules a short break after every 20 minutes of usage.
- Stretching exercises should not only be done when text neck syndrome is present but even when there are no symptoms in order to prevent it from occurring.
- Ensure a good sleeping position with a suitable pillow. This is a time when the neck and upper back should be rested and not strained further.
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