by Niamh Pentony, Ergonomist and Director at Boyne Ergonomics
The increase in tele-working (e.g remote working, agile working, home working, hybrid working etc) has led to an increase in the use of mobile technologies. The ease of use and flexibility of work location that these devices provide have revolutionised the way we work and communicate. Mobile device use is also increasing among the younger generations, both for educational and recreational purposes.
While these devices have opened up a world of possibilities, they have also presented us with an increased risk of musculoskeletal pain, headaches and fatigue. The name given to the symptoms associated with increased use of mobile devices is “Tech Neck”, also known as Forward Head Posture.
What is “Tech Neck”?
Tech Neck is pain or discomfort caused by bending the neck forward to look down at your mobile device. This flexion of the neck and the resultant rounding and hunching on the shoulders and upper back increases strain and tension the muscles and tissues.
The average head weighs approximately 5Kg. When you are upright, with your head balanced on top of your spine, the neck, shoulders and upper back can easily support this load and regular head movements as that is what they are made to do.
As you start to flex the neck and look downwards, the force of gravity acting on the head increases the load that the neck, shoulders and upper back has to support. This load increases the further down you look and at 60o flexion, the load has been found to increase to 27Kg!
The more you look down the harder the muscles and tissues have to work to support your head, the more you compress the discs in the cervical spine and the more the tendons and ligaments have to stretch.
Holding these postures for prolonged periods and repetitive movements between mobile devices can increase the risk of abnormal wear and tear of the cervical discs, reduced blood flow, strain of the tendons and ligaments and inflammation and fatigue of the shoulder, neck and upper back muscles.
What are the Symptoms of Tech Neck?
Generally, like a lot of cumulative musculoskeletal disorders, the symptoms start as mild niggles and increases in severity over time. The most common symptoms are:
Stiffness and an aching discomfort in the neck, shoulders and upper back
Decreased range of movement in the neck
Intense stabbing pain in the neck or shoulder
Pain in neck when looking down
Tingling and numbness in the arm or arms
What are the Effects of Tech Neck?
Difficulty maintaining appropriate neck posture (ear over shoulder) when not looking at mobile devices due to weakening of muscles across the chest and elongation of the muscles of the upper back.
Abnormal wear and tear to the cervical spine
Damage to the cervical discs resulting in disc bulges, ruptures or herniations. This can affect the strength and mobility of the arms and hands.
Abnormal curvature of the cervical spine, leading to a hunched upper back posture, with the head pushed forward away from the neck.
Do You Have Tech Neck?
Below is a quick posture test you can do to check if you currently have Tech Neck, or Forward Head Posture.
How to Treat and Prevent Tech Neck
- If you work at a computer, ensure all monitors are positioned correctly, including laptops and tablets. Use laptop and tablet stands to raise them to an appropriate level.
- Use external keyboard and mouse with tablets and laptops to allow for appropriate screen positioning.
- When seated or standing, be upright with shoulders relaxed, chin up and head balanced on top of the spine. Your ear, shoulder and hip should be aligned. Check your posture in the mirror during the day.
- When using the mobile phone, bring the phone up towards eye level as opposed to bending your head down to the level of the phone. If you are at the desk, use a height adjustable phone stand so you are not repetitively moving the head up and down between monitors and phone.
- Take breaks! Any static postures increase the risk of musculoskeletal strain, more so when the posture being held is outside of the neutral range. Put the phone / tablet down, leave the chair and walk around even for a minute every 20 minutes (45 minutes if working at the desk with the phone / tablet / laptop elevated) to allow the muscles and tissues to relax.
- Use exercise and stretching to strengthen and release tension in the muscles of the back neck and shoulders. Walking, jogging, swimming, cross trainer, Pilates and Yoga can all help release tension, strengthen the muscles and improve posture.
- Regular stretches and gentle movements of the neck, shoulders and arms during the day can also help reduce symptoms.
- Seek professional medical help if the symptoms are worsening, preventing you from sleeping and affecting your day-to-day activities.
Niamh has been working in the area of workplace ergonomics since 2009, specialising in assessing and adapting workstations to reduce pain and discomfort, having completed a Masters in Applied Ergonomics from the University of Nottingham.
In June 2019 Niamh launched Boyne Ergonomics, an independent ergonomics consultancy company that specialises in virtual and onsite DSE Risk Assessments and workplace Ergonomic Risk Assessments. Niamh works with employers in corporate, industrial and educational settings to ensure their employees can work safely and efficiently, whether it is an employee returning from absence, an employee reporting pain at work, an employee with additional needs or a general preventative review of current workstations.
Since April 2020, Niamh has been working with employers in to ensure their home-based employees have the appropriate education, equipment and set-up to reduce their risk of musculoskeletal injury, eye strain and stress.
Niamh is a member of the Irish Human Factors & Ergonomics Society and the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.