What do neck pain and computer use have in common?

Computers make our work, study and social life flexible. Yet, it is acknowledged that work-related neck pain and computer use are linked. So, what do neck pain and computers have in common?  Anecdotal information suggests a primary cause of neck and shoulder pain — with associated headaches — is a result of poor posture while using laptops, desktops and mobile devices for prolonged periods. Evidence indicates that correcting this behaviour with appropriate exercises will reduce neck pain.

The story usually goes along the lines of lengthy periods sitting at a desk with your computer. Or perhaps you work with a laptop in bed for an extended amount of time, checking out the best deals for holiday travel.  At some point, you experience neck pain.  After a while, the discomfort may radiate to the shoulder (typically, on the side you operate your computer mouse or trackpad). Later, you may experience a headache. However, the onset of pain starts earlier and lasts longer each time you use your computer.  Most likely, you have developed a case of ‘tech neck.” Thus, neck pain and computers are intertwined!

To add insult to your neck and shoulder “injury”, other activities, such as driving for a lengthy period or even reading a book can compound the discomfort.

 

What is ‘tech neck’?

 

When you work on a computer or look down at your mobile phone, the muscles in the back of the neck contract to hold your head up.  And a human adult head can weigh 5.5 kilos (12 lbs), which is equivalent to the weight of 1 gallon (4 liters) of paint!  The longer you remain in this ‘downward gazing’ posture, your neck muscles undergo strain and fatigue in a lengthened position. Consequently, neck pain and associated headaches can develop.

 


tech · neck –  technology-related neck and shoulder pain, stiffness and soreness; results from the act of holding the head in a forward position to examine a computer monitor, tablet or mobile phone, creating muscle tension and injury to vertebrae over time

 

A visual snapshot of ‘tech neck’ is a slumped spine, forward-poking head, and slumped shoulders.  Examine others who use mobile devices, tablets or computers.  You will likely observe this all-too-common pose.

Computer use can also result in pain and stiffness in other areas of the body including our mid and lower back and hips.

 

Laptops and tablets

 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, computer sales surged for at-home workers and learners. Of computing devices being shipped in 2020, (and later sold), approximately 83% were tablets and laptops.

Despite their popularity, a limitation of laptops and tablets is the inability to independently adjust the monitor height and keyboard placement. Because the monitor is typically lower than eye level, ‘tech neck’ becomes the standard posture.

Moreover, reduced dimensions of monitors – especially on tablets – encourages a forward-and-downward neck placement in order to optimize vision. This results in a hunched posture, leads to tight muscles, and reduces the naturally supportive curves in our necks and lower backs. ‘Tech neck’ has now progressed to ‘laptop-itis.’

With additional equipment, such as docking stations, supplemental stationary monitors, and wireless keyboards, laptops become more ergonomic-friendly.  These ‘add ons’ are well worth the additional investment, and ensure that you can construct a workstation that is more favorable to good posture habits.

 

So, what is an ideal posture at your workstation or when using a mobile device?

 

Good posture involves maintaining the natural curves of your spine, often referred to as a neutral position or neutral spine. Each aspect of your spine has a natural curve. This is the position where the postural muscles supporting the spine operate with the least effort and have the greatest biomechanical efficiency.

SPINE-CURVE_myagefit

Like portable laptops, humans are not stationary either.  We are designed to move. Pain and stiffness in the muscles and joints occur when we assume any position for prolonged periods of time. An ideal posture is also one that changes frequently, hence the phrase – ‘the best posture is the next posture’

 

Strategies to help save your own neck


Here are a few broad strategies that can help reduce pain and discomfort experienced from use of the laptop, computer, tablet or mobile phone.

 

Retain a good general fitness level

This can greatly reduce the onset of neck and back pain. Good fitness levels improve the integrity and health of muscles and can allow you to be at the laptop, home computer or on your phone for longer periods before experiencing pain.

 

Construct a sound and ideal ergonomic desk and computer set up

A workstation designed to optimize good postural habits can significantly decrease neck strain.  For more information, refer to a couple of previously written SimpliMove.Health articles:

Working from Home – The New Norm

Back Care for Office Workers

OR watch our series of videos here-

1  Ergonomic Workstation Set Up  |  Part 1  

2  Ergonomic Workstation Set Up  |  Part 2

3  Ergonomic Workstation Set Up  |  Part 3

4  Ergonomic Workstation Set Up  |  Part 4

Become posture-aware! 

If you aspire to improve your work-posture, you need to build a habit of good ‘body carriage.’  Establish an ergonomic-friendly workstation, ensuring the computer screen is at eye level. Then, employ some tools that prompt you to exhibit good posture.  Tools can include a desk mirror (to observe yourself), a note affixed to your computer monitor, or a recurring e-reminder about your posture.  If you want to observe your posture over a period of time, set your mobile phone on a tripod, and record a time-lapsed video while you work at a computer (side view is beneficial).  Observe the video recording and notice how slowly (or quickly) you revert from good-to-poor posture over a span of 20 minutes.

 

Interrupt your sitting routine

Take regular breaks and alternate between sitting and standing, which helps distribute tension to other muscles groups, and allows other muscles to relax.

Likewise, you can also perform the following exercises during breaks, or regularly while you work.

Strengthen your neck

  1. Start in a seated position and place your hands behind your head.
  2. Look straight forward and tuck your chin in, to make a double chin, gently pushing the back of your head into your hands.
  3. Hold for 3-5 seconds.

Scapula squeeze

  1. Start in a seated position and place your hands on your hips.
  2. Let your shoulders fall forward by rounding the upper back, then lift your chest.  Squeeze your shoulder blades together, drawing them back and down as your elbows come out and back.
  3. Hold this position for 5 seconds.

Wall angels  

  1. Find a wall, stand up against it with your back and head against the wall. Your feet can be up to 10 cm away from the wall.
  2. Your arms start at your sides. Take both arms out in front of you and reach overhead to touch the wall.
  3. Return to the starting position by bringing your arms back to your sides.

neck pain and computers