Tech neck, texting thumb: Our bad tech habits leave us in pain. Here’s how to feel better
Blame our overuse of phones and laptops for sore backs, shoulders and necks. Here’s how to fix them. USA TODAY
Americans now spend more than five hours a day hunched over, reading emails, sending texts or checking social media sites, according to analytics firm Flurry— and it’s turning into a real pain in the neck. No really, there’s actually a condition called “tech neck,” and there’s a good chance you — or someone in your family — have it.
ImagineMD, a direct primary care medical company based in Chicago, gathered Google search trend data to rank tech pains by the number of times people searched for them. “Tech neck” is one of the most frequently Googled tech-related conditions in the U.S. these days, right behind “texting thumb” and “cell phone elbow.”
And while the terms might sound funny, these tech-related conditions can be serious and painful. Here are the top three — and what to do about them.
Gamer’s thumb, aka texting thumb
Thumb pain is the No. 1 most-searched-for technology-related injury, with nearly 100,000 monthly searches, according to that ImagineMD report. It’s a repetitive stress injury, caused by too much gripping, tapping and swiping, either on a video game controller or a smartphone screen, says Robert Wysocki, an orthopedic surgeon at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Arthritis of the thumb, on the other hand, is a serious condition that can require surgery. Wysocki is quick to point out that thumb arthritis hasn’t been directly linked to technology habits, so if you’re a smartphone addict with thumb pain, it’s more likely you have the less serious trigger thumb. This means cramping, inflammation and general discomfort in the thumb and lower portion of the hand.
Wysocki recommends changing how you type on your phone, such as switching between your left and right hands regularly, rather than relying on one to do all the work. Holding your phone in one hand and typing with the pointer finger of the other is another easy way to give your thumb a rest.
Calming the symptoms of trigger thumb are fairly straightforward and starts with rest. You can also apply ice to dull the pain. In particularly dire cases, Wysocki suggests a cortisone shot which can loosen things up a bit, but that will require a doctor visit.
If the pain gets worse over time despite a genuine effort to rest your thumbs, it’s a good idea to seek a doctor’s advice, though as Wysocki explains, if you are diagnosed with arthritis, there is no current cure. In the case of arthritis, your doctor may suggest additional treatments.
I’ve been calling it the “cyber slouch,” and until recently, had no idea how much damage it’s done to my own health. Twice a week for nearly six weeks now, I’ve gone to a physical therapist to deal with chronic upper back, neck, shoulder and headache pain. I thought it was caused by an old sports injury, or maybe because I travel too much for work. Or because I just work too hard in general.
But no, it’s all due to how much time I spend slouching behind my laptop or hovering over my smartphone, according to my physical therapist.
According to Andrew Lui, a physical therapist and associate clinical professor at University of California San Francisco’s Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science department, one quick way to see if you might be suffering from tech neck is to look at your profile sideways in a mirror. If your ears are not
lined up with your shoulders, your posture may be promoting chronic pain.
How did this happen? The human head weighs about 10 pounds. The more you tilt your head forward and down, the more gravity increases the weight to your neck. Tilting your head 30 degrees equals about 40 pounds of strain on your neck. A 60-degree tilt is equivalent to 60 pounds of force.
“Over time, your head shifts forward,” says Lui. “We call this forward head carriage. It can cause excess strain on your upper spine.” If left untreated, tech neck can cause problems including headaches, pinched nerves, arthritis, bone spurs and muscular deformation, disc degeneration and nerve complications.
“Think about your body as much as you think about your work,” says Lui. He encourages people to make their workstations fit their body, rather than the other way around: the scrunch, hunch, slouch, lean, tilt, and slump that so many of us fall into.
“Start with good posture, move your screen directly in front of you, so that you’re not looking down all day. The main principle? It should fit you, not you it,” he adds. Experts also say to raise your mobile devices higher and closer to your line of sight, and to keep your head up while texting or scrolling.
There are also a series of stretches that are good for posture. I’ve been using two free apps, Great Posture (iOS) and MyNeck (iOS, Android). Both walk you through gentle stretch and strengthening exercises like chin retractions (pull your chin back and in, like give yourself a double-chin), shrugs (just like they sound, raise your shoulders toward your ears and then relax) and slow-no’s (turn your head side to side like you’re saying “no”). The biggest thing to remember here, according to Lui, is to stay physically fit all year round, and to see a specialist if pain persists or gets worse.
Email eye, aka digital eye strain
A splitting headache and itchy eyes after pulling long hours staring at a computer display aren’t just the annoying side effect of a workday. Your zombified screen stare can also cause chronic health problems over time, according to the American Optometric Association.
Symptoms of digital eye strain can also include blurred vision and even seeing double, the AOA notes. Your eyes simply weren’t made to stare at a screen for hours, but that’s the reality for anyone whose job revolves around a computer. More than 60% of Americans report experiencing symptoms associated with digital eye strain, including more than 20% reporting eye-related headaches, 22% experiencing blurred vision and nearly 23% struggling with dry eyes as a result of their extended screen time, according to data from eye care advocacy group The Vision Council.
The AOA calls it the “20-20-20” rule: For every 20 minutes you spend staring at the screen, look away for 20 seconds at something that is 20 feet away. This simple habit gives your eyes a much-needed break, allowing them to refocus and refresh before diving back in for another 20 minutes of computer time.
The group also recommends that you’re at least arm’s length from your screen and, if that’s too far to comfortably read text on the screen, simply increase the font size in your computer’s settings. Also, do your best to eliminate overhead lighting around your computer area, as it tends to create screen glare, which contributes to eye strain. If you wear glasses, consider anti-reflective coating when you buy your next pair, and it’ll cut down on glare even more.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY’s digital video show TECH NOW. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.