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Texting can be a literal pain in the neck

March 18, 2015 | Heather Shannon
Texting neck

Texting on your phone can be a pain in the neck – literally.

Our national obsession with handheld devices has given rise to a new condition doctors are calling “texting neck.”

“The spine is designed to hold us upright and keep us looking on the horizon,” says UC Irvine Health spine surgeon Dr. Nitin Bhatia. Over time, texting and other activities that keep your head down toward your smartphone changes that balance.

Bhatia likens the head and spine to an ice cream cone: when the cone is upright, everything is in perfect balance. 

“Putting your chin toward the chest changes the entire biomechanics of the upper spine.” This means that muscles in the neck and back have to work harder to maintain alignment.

No break from neck strain

Although texting neck is a new problem, looking down to accomplish tasks is not. The difference is how much we’re doing it these days.

“Even back in the days when we used to read books, you’d read for an hour, then get up and walk around,” says Bhatia.

Today, people use their computers for hours at a time, then get up and walk around while looking down at their phones.

“The amount of time our heads are down every day has gone up so much that our bodies can’t take the extra stress and strain,” Bhatia cautions.

Curbing the texting habit

Bhatia says how much time on the phone is too much varies from person to person. The line is crossed when you begin experiencing symptoms of a bad phone habit, which include:

  • An increase in neck problems, such as soreness or stiffness at the back of the neck
  • An increase in back problems
  • Frequent headaches
  • Numbness or tingling in your hands and arms

While Bhatia notes that a number of conditions can cause the symptoms above, if you’ve been texting or using Facebook for hours and then have soreness in your neck or back, it’s likely texting neck.

How to ease your neck pain

Bhatia says the symptoms of texting neck are reversible with a few simple changes and exercises:

  • Use your phone or tablet less.
  • If you must use your phone or tablet, consider getting a stand so you can use it while your head is upright.
  • Try to avoid bending your neck forward, and keep your head upright as much as you can.
  • Gently stretch your neck by placing your right hand on the left side of your head and give a little pull for a light stretch. Repeat with the opposite hand. Be careful not to overdo it.
  • Strengthen your neck by pushing your head against your hand going left, right, forward and back. “Your head stays in position and doesn’t move, but you feel the muscles contracting,” Bhatia says.

When people who have texting neck do those things, says Bhatia, the symptoms usually go away.

If they don’t, however, Bhatia recommends visiting your primary care physician for examination and treatment. Treatment may include cortisone shots and physical therapy, depending on the extent of the problem.

But if you don’t plan to use your device less in the long run, any treatment will be fruitless, warns Bhatia. Texting neck sufferers who don’t modify their use may have a lifetime of neck and back problems.

“Nothing will work unless the underlying cause of the problem is changed.”

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