Smart devices are triggering a real pain in the neck for some people

by Paul Arco
OSF Healthcare

ROCKFORD - Technology is all around us. From our laptops to tablets, many of us are consumed with our gadgets for hours on end. In fact, various reports say the average person in the United States spends between five and 10 hours each day on their smartphones, computers, video games, and TVs.

But with all this screen time comes potential health problems. A condition known as “tech neck” is the stressing of the muscles while looking down at items such as phones or computers for long periods of time.

“Technology which is affecting your neck is the best way I can put it," says Dr. Nandini Chattopadhyay, a family practice physician with OSF HealthCare. "Technology can mean phones, iPhones, tablets, computers and their overall effect on the neck, shoulders, upper back, which has been a problem in the recent years and that’s what tech neck is all about.”

Some are calling this problem the new carpal tunnel syndrome.

“In tech neck, we see the neck being affected because of the technology," says Dr. Chattopadhyay.  "More often than not, it's the nerves which are running from the back of the head to your neck and shoulders, which becomes weak because of the way that people do these activities and looking at technology devices. The relationship between nerve and pain in terms of neck is now called the new carpal tunnel of this era.”

Tech neck affects both adults and children, but symptoms vary and can be different for each person, says Dr. Chattopadhyay, who has treated patients as young as five. The repetitive strain on the bones, nerves, and muscles caused by looking down at a phone or laptop, for example, can cause joint inflammation, pinched nerves, arthritis, and even herniated discs.

So if I started at the head, then it can be headaches, changes in vision and needing glasses at a much younger age than what you would usually need," says Dr. Chattopadhyay. "Then it’s a lot of neck stiffness, then weakness of your upper back. A lot of tension of the muscles on the upper back. Gradually the pain goes all the way down to the lower back and then you feel numbness and tingling in your arms. These are some of the common symptoms that I see.”

Nandini Chattopadhyay, MD

There are ways to prevent tech neck, such as maintaining good posture, using a smartphone holder, investing in a monitor stand and asking your doctor about physical therapy. The good news is there are treatments that can be effective for tech neck. There’s no need to live with pain if it can be treated, says Dr. Chattopadhyay.

“The management of this comes with the awareness," she adds. "So daily exercises, making sure you're moving around, and have the ability to take breaks from technology devices. That's very important if you're working on the computer every day, then take one or two hours just to yourself to do regular exercises where you're not looking at the computer screen.”

Our phones and other devices are important tools and there’s no reason to give them up, Dr. Chattopadhyay adds. But she does recommends holding the phone at eye level to help reduce the strain. But if you continue to experience any pain, it might be time to visit your doctor.