Brett Sears is a practicing physical therapist, who specializes in treating back and neck pain. He is the Physical Therapy Expert at Verywell.com, and writes about how new technology can help people move and feel better. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.
I see it every day and everywhere: People tenaciously tapping away at smartphones, laptops, and tablets. There they are, slouched on the comfy couch at the coffee shop or standing in line at the bank, noses down in their devices. It’s our universal posture.
It’s also a posture that’s causing our health to suffer. Looking down at our devices increases stress on our spines and the small, spongy discs between vertebrae. In fact, research indicates that the further you bend your neck, the greater the torque on your spine; a forward angle of 60 degrees — that is, looking straight down at a phone held at chest level — makes a 12-pound head feel like it weighs 60 pounds. This heavy-head phenomenon can cause pain due to pinched nerves or herniated discs.
As a physical therapist, I treat people with these aches and pains every day. Thankfully, unlike many nondescript backaches, we know what’s causing our “text neck,” which means we’re better equipped to fix it. So, what do we do now? Throw away the technology? Of course not. We just need to be more aware of our interactions with it.
That awareness starts with learning proper posture. Years ago, the great physical therapist and spine guru Robin McKenzie was asked about the three most important treatment techniques he could offer a patient. His response: "Posture correction, posture correction, and posture correction." Proper posture involves maintaining the natural anatomical position of your spine — ears over shoulders, shoulders over your hips, and a slight forward curve in the neck and lower back.
Positive change in your positioning while tweeting or emailing means keeping your eyes and head above your shoulders. Sometimes simple fixes can do a lot of good, too; for instance, adding a lumbar support roll to your chair can brace your spine, and using a small stand can elevate your laptop to eye level. (Important caveat here: If you’re experiencing persistent spinal pain or discomfort, see your doctor or a physical therapist. Don't let small aches and pains turn into big problems.)
Ironically, technology itself can also help make us more aware of — even eliminate — our slouches and slumps. Wearable devices can train you to sit and stand with correct posture. The Lumo Lift, for example, is a small magnetic chip that attaches to a shirt or bra strap and vibrates whenever you slouch. The TruPosture smart shirt has five sensors placed along your spine, which signal haptic feedback whenever your posture is less than ideal.
We also need to realize that our desks, chairs, and makeshift mobile “workstations” aren’t doing our backs any favors, either. As physical therapists like to say, “motion is lotion.” So, recent controversies notwithstanding, a sit-to-stand workstation, such as the Varidesk height-adjustable standing desk, may be your best bet to stave off laptop-induced “tech” neck. Sit a little, stand a bit, and recline some. Similarly, the Gesture Chair by Steelcase includes a flexible back and articulating arms that move with you, providing support for your spine as you recline and for your elbows and shoulders as you hold up mobile devices.
All of these efforts boil down to the same idea: We’ll fend off pain if we manage to keep our screens at eye level. Eventually, changes in the devices themselves will make that easier to do. The newest wave of wearable, head-mounted displays (HMDs), similar to Glyph, put screens right in front of our faces, saving us from craning and bending forward. Unfortunately, HMDs have yet to infiltrate our daily lives (sorry, Google Glass). Until eyeglasses — or perhaps contact lenses one day — become screens, we’ll need to put a little effort into making certain our gadgets don’t become pains in the neck.