Do you suffer from headaches in the back of your head or behind your eyes? Do you get neck or shoulder pain, radiating pain or numbness that may include tingling or burning into your arms? Do you have a stiff neck in the morn- ing? Does this happen when you drive, use your computer, sit on a recliner or use your phone?
If you answered yes to any of these, you may have what I term “smartphone neck,” a problem that develops from being in a bent- forward position for too long.
The hours that modern society spends in a flexed position continues to increase, with watching TV, computer use, driving and tex- ting. We eat bent forward, drive in a flexed position, watch TV or movies in a cushioned chair that we sink into — all pushing our spine into a flexed position. How often are we doing something in which we actually look up?
The normal curves of the spine reduce the stress in our spine by 10 times. That may be hard to believe, but think about a spring. By being curved, it does not bend at one point — the stress is absorbed throughout the spring. The same is true of our spine.
Modern-day activities tend to move these curves into a flexed position. We’ve all seen
the elderly person with severe kyphosis, also termed a dowager’s hump. This occurs over years of being bent forward, and the person usually is not aware of the problem until it’s al- ready become severe.
A research study was conducted in which needles measured pressure inside the interver- tebral disks in the neck. Standing with normal posture caused 12 pounds of pressure on a disk. The forward head position triples the pressure!
This increase in pressure may accelerate disk degeneration, arthritis, and disk bulging or herniation. This helps explain why these problems are so common. Reportedly, 60 per- cent of people over age 40 have some degree of cervical disk degeneration. Younger people are also being affected, and may be at higher risk due to the use of texting and phones.
Forward head position compresses the mus- cles at the base of the skull and can cause head- aches. This can particularly cause pain in the back of the head, which can sometimes radiate into the forehead or behind the eye. Muscle spasm may be a significant part of this problem.
Damage to structures in the neck can also cause pain that radiates into the top of the shoulder, between the shoulder blades and into an arm. This usually affects only one side. Symptoms may include pain, numbness, tin- gling, burning and aching. Positions that usually make these things worse are using a computer, driving, eating, reading and bending forward.
Change your Habits
What can be done to correct these problems? The great news is that many cases can be al- leviated. A physical therapist can help. Correc- tion involves changing the root cause of the symptoms, such as postural correction, chair change or changing driving position.
This may also include stretching the chest and front of the neck, and strengthening of the upper back. Cervical traction may also help with disk-related symptoms. Soft tissue mobilization and stretches may help tight muscles relax. It does take a lot of work to change long-term habits.
One thing you can do right now is evaluate the position you’re in when using your phone or computer. Are you holding your head straight? The “wall test” is a classic way of determining “normal posture.” Stand against a wall with your buttocks, shoulders and the back of your head touching the wall, and with your eyes level. This is “normal”, though not everyone can attain this position. Plus, “normal posture” isn't good for everyone. An evaluation by a doctor or thera- pist can help determine what’s best for you.
Smartphone neck can be a surprising cause of headaches and neck and arm pain. The great news is that many times it can be cor- rected with conservative treatment. The take- home message is not to ignore significant symptoms. The incidence of these cases has increased significantly over the last few years. A visit to your primary care doctor or physical therapist is a reasonable place to start.
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