Is ‘text neck’ real?

Text neckI saw a recent newspaper article claiming that there is no such thing as ‘text neck’, saying that research has dismissed any link between use of mobile phones and neck pain. As is often the case with mainstream media, the journalist was basing this rather bold statement on the findings of just one small study [1].

The problem with this type of journalism is that large claims are based on small amounts of evidence, without taking into account the bigger picture. Had the journalist taken the trouble to look further, they would have discovered that quite a lot of research has already been done in this area. While the jury is still out, the weight of evidence is pointing towards the likelihood that there is a link between mobile technology use and neck and shoulder pain. For example, research published in 2017 reviewed all the studies to date that had examined a possible relationship between mobile touch screen technology use and musculoskeletal problems such as neck pain [2]. The researchers’ analysis of the 45 studies identified led to their conclusion that there is some (albeit limited) evidence of musculoskeletal problems, particularly neck and shoulder symptoms, associated with mobile technology use. They stressed that the evidence is limited, largely due to the lack of controlled and long-term studies, but they were sufficiently concerned to issue guidance, including reducing excessive time using mobiles [2].

We evolved in an environment very different from that of today. We were, no doubt, well adapted to that environment, moving through it with our heads beautifully ‘supported and suspended’ as part of our whole springy and dynamic upright structure. In this scenario, the considerable weight of our head (4.5kg or so!) did not cause us any undue strain, passing ‘straight down the plumb line’ into the ground rather than pulling the rest of our body down.

However, since the Industrial Revolution our environment has changed beyond recognition. The current world of seats, tables, cars, computers and mobile technology has changed how we spend our time, fundamentally restricting and constraining our everyday (moment-by-moment) movement into an uncomfortable mix of stasis and repetitive actions. We have developed an array of subconscious habits to try and adapt ourselves to this environment, and these are interfering with our natural movement coordination, postural support and balance. If you watch most people using a mobile, reading a book, or just looking down, you’ll see their head hanging forwards from the spine rather than pivoting at the joint at the top (see my article in TalkBack magazine for more on this [3]). With 4.5kg of weight pulling downwards for large parts of the day, it seems foolish to dismiss the possibility that neck and shoulder pain may result over the years.

While there is now a lot of attention paid to the amount of time spent on our mobiles, it may be more important to focus on how we use it – what do we do to ourselves while we are ‘lost’ in our virtual world? Why not conduct a little experiment – pick up your mobile and start reading a text or looking at social media. Ask yourself what gradually happens to your neck and shoulders, to your breathing, and to your awareness of the world around you? My belief is that – without an ability to avoid the usual habits around mobile phone use – it is likely to predispose to neck and shoulder pain over the long term. But it’s not just about biomechanics. Losing awareness of what’s around us and instead focusing our attention narrowly on our mobiles, we tend to become tense and rigid, affecting our breathing, balance and our sense of being ‘grounded’. So paradoxically, even while we are rushing about our busy days, on the move and on our mobiles, we can actually become quite frozen and fixed.

As an Alexander Technique teacher, I help people recognise what’s happening to themselves as they use their mobile, or indeed as they carry out any activity (sitting, lifting, walking etc). I then show them how they can reduce unhelpful habits so that they can lead their daily lives with more poise and freedom, and less effort. Using a mobile well

Consider finding out more about the Alexander Technique if you’d like to be able to look after yourself better and stay grounded in the real world – and not just when you’re using your mobile.

 

  1. Gerson Moreira Damasceno GM, et al. Text neck and neck pain in 18–21-year-old young adults. European Spine Journal, January 2018;1–6.
  2. Toh SH, et al. The associations of mobile touch screen device use with musculoskeletal symptoms and exposures: A systematic review. PLoS One, August 2017;12(8):e0181220.
  3. How the Alexander Technique can help you avoid ‘text neck’, Julia Woodman. TalkBackquarterly magazine of BackCare. Summer 2016 Issue; 20–21 (or click here for PDF; reproduced with kind permission).