Expert tips on avoiding painful "text neck"

By YP cadet Geraldine Cheung

Don’t let your phone fun become a pain in the neck: spine experts give us tips on how to enjoy your devices safely

By YP cadet Geraldine Cheung |

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Do you experience stiffness and pain in your neck muscles? You could be suffering from “text neck”, a common problem for people who spend a lot of time staring down at tablets and smartphones. We know how difficult it can be to stop using these devices, so Young Post spoke to Dr Eric Lam Cheung-hing, a specialist in orthopaedics and traumatology at Hong Kong Spine and Pain Centre, and chiropractor Dr Michelle Zhou, for some useful tips on how to avoid and manage neck strain.

Lam said “text neck” happens because people using mobile devices tend to stay in the same position for a long time, usually with their heads tilted at an awkward angle. “This can cause diseases of the cervical disc [a shock-absorbing, soft pad that lies between vertebrae in the neck] that would make your hands, legs, neck and head numb and painful,” he said.

Zhou agreed that a poor posture would cause “text neck” or, as it’s scientifically known, “forward head carriage” because people sit or stand with their heads bent down and forward to look at the screen. “Tilting your head like that drastically increases the weight that your neck has to carry,” she said. “This could cause overstretched ligaments and misalignment of your cervical spine.”

Physiotherapy is a vital part of a recovery programme, but some neck injuries – such as a prolapsed intervertebral disc, or slipped disc as it’s commonly known – are not reversible. And as we get older, cervical degeneration will only get worse. So both Lam and Zhou offer some advice on how to avoid adding to this problem.

Lam advises you to change your posture. For starters, raise your phone or tablet to eye level so your head is in a relaxed position. You can use cushions or books to support your arm so your shoulder muscles don’t get tired.

Zhou agrees that changing your posture can reduce your chances of spinal injury. “For example, if you are sitting on a sofa to use your device, it is a good idea to you place a large pillow on your lap and rest your elbows on the pillow,” she said. “This puts your hands at eye level and allows your head to stay in the proper position, and also prevents your arm from getting tired as you are doing much less work to hold up your device.”

And don’t fall into the typical trap of trying it once or twice and then going back to your old posture.

“You should keep doing this. Self-discipline is key to avoiding any injuries,” said Zhou. “Also, try not to use your tablets or phone for long periods of time. Take break every 30 minutes. This will also rest your eyes, spine, and arm muscles.”

During this break, Lam recommends you go out for a walk and look around to loosen your neck muscles. “Instead of focusing on your phone, try to look at the tree tops and do some stretching, like turning your head left and right or up and down. That way your neck won’t be too stiff,” he said.

Zhou also recommended doing regular exercises and stretching, because this will help relax your muscles. “Yoga, for example, can improve your posture and reduce the effects of ‘text neck’,” she said. “Chin tucks, cervical side bends, and cervical rotation are all neck exercises that you can do.

Lying down and rolling a massage ball around the back of your neck can also relieve some pain. All these exercises encourage a full range of spinal mobility.”

Follow this advice and you should be able to enjoy all your surfing and chatting without straining your neck. But if, after trying all of these tips, you still have constant pain in your head, neck and arm muscles, don’t be afraid to seek professional help from a physiotherapist or a chiropractor.

Edited by Sam Gusway