PAIN IN THE NECK
If you’re hopelessly devoted to your devices, here’s a heads-up: tech addiction can be the last straw for your spine.
Tech addiction can be the last straw for your spine.
“A PATIENT PLAYED ANGRY BIRDS WITH HIS HEAD DOWN FOR FOUR HOURS A DAY”
It’s a crisp yet sparkly day in Paris as I settle into one of those neighbourly hole-in-the-wall cafes that make you feel smugly like a local. With that specific fish-out-of-water propensity of a tourist, I see the glaringly obvious: of the 20-odd patrons, more than three quarters are consumed by the technology at their fingertips. There’s the home-office situation in the back left-hand corner; at least three French couples scrolling through their morning news feeds; another woman uploading her breakfast spread to Instagram (the coffee not the only thing given a thorough filtering); and a couple of business types zooming in on an official-looking iPad presentation. And I’m not passing judgement: had there been Wi-Fi, I would have happily joined them.
When it comes to technology, we’ve sailed right past reliability to downright dependency: how else does one navigate a foreign city? Or track their menstrual cycle against the moon? Or locate a caftan a friend wore on holiday in Croatia? Tellingly, a recent study by the UK’s Nottingham Trent University found the average user checks their phone 85 times per day, which was double the frequency people realised. But perhaps more concerning is not how often we’re reaching for our phones (that caftan is a summer staple, after all), but how we’re doing it.
Dr Kenneth Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine, coined the phrase “text neck” or “tech neck” after seeing a spike in patients presenting persistent neck and back pain. It was only after a routine operation for a herniated disc – a relatively straightforward procedure – that Dr Hansraj noticed there were certain behaviours that not only interrupted a swift recovery, but also contributed to the initial problem. “We found out that [the patient] was playing Angry Birds with his head down for about four hours a day,” he says, adding the specific angle of the neck one naturally assumes to look at their phone – oftentimes for hours per day – is ushering in a host of neck and back problems as well as informing lousy posture.
Perched correctly, the head exerts around 4.5 kilograms of force on your neck. Tilted forward it exerts a hefty 27 or so kilograms. There are those who carry it well – think Rihanna’s exquisite tattooed swan neck, or Natalia Vodianova’s longline physique – and entire films, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Hobbit, dedicated to those who don’t. According to body language expert David Alssema, failure to maintain a soldier-like stance speaks volumes professionally. “Poor posture in the workplace can demonstrate a lack of energy, lack of concern or poor work performance. It can communicate to others disinterest or unwillingness to converse,” he says. “The chin held low indicates submissiveness while the head held straight indicates assertiveness.” It seems there’s a reason Rihanna always looks so badass.
Dr Hansraj says it’s not only the obvious physical indicators of neck and back problems – hunched shoulders and a permanent slouch – that are concerning. Internally, ligaments are the first to feel the pinch of the tech-dedicated by becoming inflamed, followed by stressed muscles and finally permanent damage to the spinal elements, namely, disc spaces, vertebral bones, the spinal cord and nerve roots. Similarly, constant curvature of the spine can lead to a crepey décolletage and sagging jowls, thanks to collagen breakdown and the skin’s naturally paper-thin texture on the neck and chest.
And it’s not so much a question of if but when you’ll experience some degree of discomfort. According to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 (sponsored, ironically, by technopreneur Bill Gates) lower back pain is the leading cause of disability globally, with neck pain coming in fourth. So how can we ensure something so mechanical and habitual as looking down at our smartphones or laptops isn’t a problem further down the track? While the digitally fatigued will tell you the answer is as simple as putting your phone down, there are ways to counteract the issue without resorting to such drastic – some may say archaic – measures. “While it is nearly impossible to avoid the technology that causes these issues, individuals should make an effort to look at their phones with a neutral spine and to avoid spending hours each day hunched over,” says Dr Hansraj, adding that the head should be kept in a neutral position with the arms raised slightly higher. “Remember, good posture is the most efficient and least stressful position.”
Likewise, taking time out to realign can prove beneficial. The Apple Watch Series 2 houses a Breathe app, which reminds wearers to practise mindfulness by guiding them through a series of deep breaths at varying intervals throughout the day. Plus, it pings you a message to stand up and move when it senses you’ve been stationary (likely glued to a computer screen) for too long. And if a more physical indicator is needed, crowd-funded gadget EyeForcer is a pair of glasses worn by a tech user that sends a message to the device they’re using whenever the wearer begins to curve their spine. It’s aimed mainly at children who spend hours a day screen-bound (many schools now use iPads for learning).
Moreover, exercises like pilates and yoga, which lengthen and stretch the back and neck muscles, can counteract a day spent curved over and realign the muscles. “Exercises help, too,” says Dr Hansraj. “Start with range of motion of the cervical spine. Flexion, extension, side bends, and tilts of the neck. Then progress to isometric strengthening by doing the same activities and applying stopping pressures with the hand.”
For Dr Hansraj, the simplest practices are the most beneficial. “My message is simple. When texting and using the phone or a smart device, keep your head up! Look down with your eyes and raise the device up.” To paraphrase Ice Cube: you can do it, just don’t put your back into it.