Spending hours every day looking down at your phone and laptop might get you caught up on work and social media, but it can be so tough on your neck and shoulders that it’s prompted the rise of a new term: Tech neck.
The phrase describes that slight forward tilt to your head that becomes problematic when you’re in that position for too long, according to Carol Mack, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist and strength coach at CLE Sports PT & Performance in Cleveland. The neck muscles lengthen in the back, creating strain, while shortening in the front, causing your shoulders to round, creating a hunch or “lump” in the area where the top of the back meets the neck.
“That position, in particular, can cause decreased shoulder and neck mobility, sometimes to a significant degree,” she tells SELF. “At some point, range of motion can become limited, to the point where dynamic movement is challenging.”
If that happens, even a beneficial activity like strength training can exacerbate the issue, she adds, because the smaller range of motion will keep your shoulders rounded and your neck jutting forward. If you’re doing work targeting muscles on the frontside of the body, like your chest or pectoral muscles, you could be worsening the strain on the upper back, neck, and shoulders.
Plus, no matter what your activity, you’ll likely experience pain along with the stiffness and decreased mobility. In a 2019 study published in PLoS One, researchers found a strong association between time spent on a smartphone and duration and severity of neck pain. There can be a ripple effect as well, including more tension in the upper back, numbness in the hands, recurring headaches, and rotator cuff tendonitis, according to Mack.
One long-term fix is to change your positioning so your computer is at eye level, she suggests, and to be sure to take breaks frequently so you’re not stuck in the same position for an extended period of time. As for devices like tablets and cell phones that you tend to hold in your lap or at your chest, ideally the best option is to sit in a chair or on a couch where you can rest your head on the back of it, and bring your phone or tablet up to eye level. If that’s not feasible (or if you find yourself reverting to your initial, head-down position), pencil in regular move breaks to make sure you’re changing up your position.
Those are all ways to prevent tech neck, but what about if it’s already reared up? The good news is, there are some things you can do to alleviate the tightness and discomfort.
And stretching is a major one—the right stretches can feel amazing for easing that tension. Tech neck stretches can help in a variety of ways, such as by gently lengthening the muscles in the front of the neck or providing some relief for overstretched muscles in the back of the neck. Because your neck muscles also attach to those in your shoulders, chest, and upper back, stretching those related muscles can be beneficial, too.
Here are 10 stretches Mack suggests for getting back into alignment. Pick three to four, and start out by holding each for 30 seconds, though you can try to hold them for up to a minute for additional relief. (Of course, if you’re experiencing shooting pain, have severe headaches you think are related to neck tension, or stretches like these aren’t helping, be sure to see a physical therapist or doctor.)