‘Tech Neck’ cases rise among young adults

Students are often having neck pain which has been shown to correlate with how much time you're spending on a screen. Grace Fortier | Photographer

By Samantha Bradsky | Reporter

Increasing numbers of young adults are experiencing chronic headaches, premature arthritis and neck pain, which seem like symptoms college students should not have to worry about. However, a vast majority of them also own electronic devices — the cause of a condition called “Tech Neck.”

Tech Neck, a clinical condition unique to the 21st century, is caused by a reversal of the cervical curve due to repetitive forward head flexion.

“Mainly, it’s a tightness or an irritation in the upper back and neck muscles caused by holding your head in a certain posture for long periods of time, looking at computer screens and phone screens,” Richard Gochis, a physical therapist at the McLane Student Life Center, said.

According to an NCBI research report, “75% of the world’s population is hunched over their handheld devices hours daily with their heads flexed forward.” Especially after the onslaught of digital learning in the past year, experts say Tech Neck is more prevalent now than ever before.

“I think it’s always been an issue with workers who are at computers all day; that was the older population,” Rapid City, S.D., chiropractor and author Josh Biberdorf said. “It takes quite a bit of repetition for your body to lose its normal curvature and have what we’d call a reverse curve in the back. We see a lot younger people now than we ever saw before.”

“I’ve definitely seen a lot of patients with Tech Neck symptoms,” Gochis said. “I also see it a lot around finals time and the last couple of weeks of every semester, when people are cramming to write papers and study.”

Rapid City, S.D., chiropractor Sarah Strain said if a student has been experiencing chronic headaches for the past year, she would potentially attribute the symptom to frequent cell phone or laptop use.

“The thoracic spine will start to curve more, so people have more of that dome or C-shape, and eventually, if they don’t ever correct that or stretch out those neck muscles or strengthen the thoracic spine to pull them back up, they’ll have that forward-bend posture,” Strain said. “This will increase the likelihood of chronic headaches and neck pressure.”

If left untreated, Tech Neck symptoms can become more surprising.

“If you think of it like the loop of a safety pin, there is input that goes from the outside of the body up to the brain and comes back and tells the body what to do,” Biberdorf said. “When there are misaligned vertebrae from the head being in that forward position for too long, that safety pin loop gets interrupted. It’s like opening the safety net; now, the brain can’t communicate properly with the body.”

Biberdorf described more severe side effects, such as impacts on cognitive and spatial awareness that can affect sports performance, focus and mental clarity.

“If you start to get a reversal of the cervical curve at age 15, in 10 to 20 years, you’re going to have some arthritis in those areas,” Biberdorf explained. “So instead of developing arthritis when you’re 60 or 70, you’re going to have some arthritic symptoms in your late 30s.”

To prevent this, both Biberdorf and Strain recommend regular adjustments to realign the vertebrae, customized postural exercises and, in extreme cases, physical therapy.

Most students, however, don’t have the time or money for regular chiropractic appointments, so both chiropractors and the physical therapist gave some home remedies for counteraction.

“A foam roller is great,” Strain said. “You can use resistance bands for rowing exercises. A high plank to a low plank really works on a muscle in the lower part of the shoulder blade. Just basically stretching and low impact strengthening exercises would help most people, along with mental cueing — every hour, making sure you are sitting up straight and pulling your chin back.”

“What we always talk about is chin in, chest out,” Biberdorf said. “Just pretend that somebody’s got a string attached to your chest and is pulling it out.”

The Physical Therapy Clinic, where Gochis sees both students and faculty members, is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and it is located on the second floor of the McLane Student Life Center.

“If we can help people, kids, our younger generation, our 20- to 30-year-olds in making sure that they’re aware of [Teck Neck] and making sure that they’re using those postural cues and strength exercises, I think it will decrease medical costs as time goes on,” Strain said. “It will help society if we can tackle this problem when people are younger.”