What is Tech Neck?
You may have heard of tech neck or if you’re unfortunate you may have been diagnosed as having it. But what exactly is tech neck, what causes it and how can you help yourself if you develop it?
Tech neck is the latest addition to the RSI family. RSI stands for repetitive strain injury and it is usually used as a descriptor for chronic pain conditions affecting the arms and hands. Conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and tendonitis are very common RSI type conditions. However RSI can affect any part of the body because, as the name suggests, the cause is overuse of part of the body. For many upper body conditions, now including tech neck, the cause is too much tech.
Tech neck doesn’t affect just your neck and typical symptoms can include aching and discomfort in the lower neck, shoulders and upper back. Sometimes this can be accompanied by sharp stabbing pain in the neck, headaches, and tingling and numbness in the hands and fingers.
The main area affected with tech neck is the back of the head and neck. Without getting too technical this is a complex area. There are over 20 muscles and associated fascia that attached into the back of the skull, many of the muscles travelling all the way up the back from the pelvis. This area is also highly enervated as an exit point for some of the cranial nerves from the brain. The fascia in this area contains a high level of proprioceptors which are the nerve endings that give us our sense of where we are in space, our spatial awareness. With so many sensitive structures in this area it’s not surprising that any increase in pressure can contribute to pain felt in the head, neck and shoulders.
What causes Tech Neck?
There are many activities that put pressure on the back of the head and neck. One that is unfortunately growing rapidly is the use of tech. This can be using laptops, tablets, phones or gaming devices. Whether it’s texting, gaming or computer work the natural tendency is to lean forwards ‘into’ the device and to spend far too long doing it. We have all seen the people who bump into each other because they’re texting while walking, but it is generally true that we all spend far too much time looking down.
Looking down involves tilting your head forwards to varying degrees. The head weighs about 5kg. That’s when it is upright and balanced. It is supported by just 7 small bones (vertebrae) in the neck and about 20 muscles and associated fascia. This gives it freedom of movement but it also makes it susceptible to imbalances that may develop. If you spend a lot of time looking down, gravity increases the relative weight of your head from 5kg to up to 22kg. That’s a lot of strain on the structures in the back of your head and neck, so it’s not surprising that pain conditions can develop.
How does this affect your fascia?
From a fascial perspective the consequences of looking down change the fascia in your neck and back from free moving tissue to a thicker and more sticky consistency as the water is squeezed out by the increased pressure, and then to stuck and dehydrated. This change in the structure of the fascia causes stiffness, pain and changed proprioception. Hence people may first notice their neck is a bit stiff and clicky when they move their head, then they may start to develop pain in their head and neck, and then they may start to become more clumsy and develop other symptoms such as dizziness or tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
Over time the stuck fascia creates imbalance where people get stuck into a forward head position. This means their head is stuck out of balance and held their by fascial restriction in the neck and upper body. This can lead to not just tech neck symptoms but also back problems or even issues with breathing as the chest is compressed. Some people develop a dowagers hump, a fatty pad that grows at the base of the neck to protect the bottom neck vertebra.
Whether you have tech neck or not, it is likely you are doing too much looking down. Ways in which you can help prevent symptoms from developing are pretty obvious – take regular breaks from any tech work and use these breaks to move, even just gentle stretching or a walk can help to remind your fascia that you also want to move. Find a movement therapy that interest you – this could be yoga, pilates, tai chi or qigong, it could be an online class or a local teacher. Regular movement classes can help to stretch and rebalance your body and calm your nervous system. Myofascial self-help exercises also work in a similar way.
To start you off, here’s a 10 minute Fascial Fix for Neck Pain: