If you have a pain in the neck, you might want to consider whether you want to text about it.
You may be suffering from the newest malady brought to us by the latest technological advances: “text neck,” also known as “smartphone neck” or “cellphone neck.”
And if you text with one hand while holding the phone in the other, you may be even more susceptible than if you’re a two-thumb texter.
“There’s a certain literature on so-called cellphone neck — there’s always a name for everything,” said Dr. Kenneth Kramer, an orthopedic surgeon with Connecticut Orthopaedic Specialists who specializes in conditions of the spine.
Kramer said the affliction falls into “the common basket of overuse syndromes or repetitive-use syndromes,” such as runner’s shin splints, swimmer’s shoulder or tennis elbow.
Neck strain can arise with texting or sometimes when using a laptop when “people have their necks and heads in a fully flexed, craned position” so that the head is being held up solely by the large trapezius muscle in the back of the neck.
“When people think of the traps … people think of that large ridge of musculature above the shoulders,” Kramer said. But it’s actually “a very large, broad sheet. It extends from the base of the skull, it expands out to the shoulders and then, almost like a triangle, it extends down to the mid-back between the shoulder blades.”
Our “traps” allow us to flex and turn the neck and head, keep our shoulders in line and twist our arms. But they’re not intended to hold up our heads while we’re hunched over, texting on our phones.
“Consider that the average human head weighs about 10 pounds,” Kramer said. “If you and I held a 10-pound dumbbell in an extended position, it would be a significant load over a period of time.”
Holding up our heads is part of what our spinal columns are meant to do. If you look down too much, “the neck and the upper back muscles are being very much strained,” and the trapezius is required to keep the head “from dropping down on your chest,” Kramer said. “Done repetitively enough, it could cause muscle strain.”
Dr. Arya Varthi, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Yale School of Medicine who specializes in spinal surgery, said flexing the neck forward “puts a good amount of pressure … through the muscles in the back of the neck as well as the disks between the vertebrae.
He said “most people who have this don’t need surgery” unless a nerve is compressed, which would result in tingling down the arm.
“I wouldn’t say we track the numbers … but anecdotally over the past 10 to 20 years, with increased cellphone usage and increased computer usage, the number of people with these problems has gone up,” he said.
While it has not been reported as a major problem, Kramer said, “Amongst people who are complaining with these symptoms, it correlates with more rather than less texting.”
He also said that those who use two thumbs to text, rather than hunting and pecking with one finger, are “a little less prone” to the strain. “That was a little bit of a softer finding,” Kramer said.
One way to lessen the strain “would be if a person … were to support their arms or elbows [on] a desk while they’re texting. That takes a lot of the weight off the shoulders … and upper back,” Kramer said.
The other way to avoid neck strain would be to “adjust your posture. Try to text with your head in an upright position,” he said. “If after trying those things … a person was still having neck symptoms … then the right thing would be to attend some physical therapy and be educated in some strengthening exercises for the neck and upper back muscles.”
Varthi suggested using a sit-to-stand desk, which “can put your body in a better position to look at a screen.” To ease the pain, he suggested Tylenol or lidocaine patches. “If a person tries treatments like that for six to eight weeks and doesn’t get better, an MRI would be the next step.”
He also suggested “keeping your weight down because the less weight that you have on your body, the less pressure you have on your neck.” He added that smoking can exacerbate neck pain (since) nicotine constricts blood vessels, which “decreases oxygen supply to disks and muscles.”
Want to urge someone to lose weight or stop smoking? Go ahead and text them. It probably won’t hurt you too much.