The pandemic, we know, has been a pain in the neck. Literally.
In 2020, the amount of time people spent online reading social media, news, emails, and texts shot up from 6 hours and 49 minutes a day in 2019 to 7 hours and 50 minutes a day, according to a survey by eMarketer.
Considering how addicted people are to their devices and that many are now working from home in makeshift offices or at kitchen tables, it’s not surprising to learn that people are reporting an increase in neck, shoulder, hip, and back pain and fearing that they’ll end up with permanently rounded shoulders.
“We’ve seen a considerable increase in neck and back pain over the last eight to 10 years,” says Melissa Haberzettl, a rehabilitation supervisor at UCHealth Memorial Hospital. “But, certainly, there’s been a significant increase with COVID and remote learning and remote working.”
One study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that 70% of people working from home complained about musculoskeletal issues. But there are things that can be done to fix poor posture and help relieve pain.
How digital media affects our musculoskeletal health and posture
How do you read your digital device? Most likely, you bend your neck to read the small screen, maybe even slouch and round your shoulders, depending on where you’re sitting or standing.
Consider this. The human head weighs 10 to 12 pounds. And the joints and muscles in your neck and shoulders have the job of supporting this weight, said Dr. Melissa Strike, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at UCHealth Grandview Medical Center. “With every inch you bend your neck forward, there is an increase of 10 pounds of pressure on the neck structures supporting your head. This can add up quickly and cause neck pain, hunched shoulders, and headaches.”
Short and long-term issues of this strain, sometimes referred to as tech neck, can include jaw problems, headaches, back spasms, and eventually bulging or ruptured discs in your neck, leading to numbness and weakness in your arms or hands.
Haberzettl said that using a tablet, laptop, and smartphone, which more and more people are using instead of a desktop setup, makes you more likely to assume poor posture.
“The desire to have all devices be really small and portable makes it impossible to use good posture or have good ergonomics while you’re using these them,” she said.
For teenagers who start using digital media excessively from an early age, these neck, shoulder, and back issues, which are much more common in an older population, can affect them earlier than normal and may even cause permanent damage if not addressed.
How to prevent pain and correct poor posture
The first sign that you have a problem with your posture is pain. If you are uncomfortable or achy while you’re working or using digital media, then you are doing something wrong. The good news is that you can easily treat your pain and improve your posture.
Rounded or hunched shoulders and a bent neck mean, in most cases, that your neck, back, and chest muscles are tight. By stretching and being conscious of your position, you can loosen those muscles and improve your posture.
“It’s not the use of technology that’s the problem as much as it’s the prolonged sitting and positioning while using devices that can lead to problems,” Dr. Strike said. Here are suggestions for how to use technology in a way that’s less stressful on your body.
Ergonomic work station can help fix posture
Most people are at their desks and computers all day long. While a desktop is generally better than a laptop, you still need to pay attention to your office setup. Here are some rules that will help reduce pain, problems, and discomfort.
- Keep your computer screen an arm’s length away
- Make sure your eyes are level with the top one-third of your screen
- Use armrests to reduce stress on your shoulders
- Get a chair with good lower back support or use a pillow for support if your chair does not do the trick
- Make sure your knees are at a 90-degree angle and touching the floor, or use a footrest to maintain that angle.
- Use a headset, so you’re not cradling your phone against your shoulder
- Make sure your keyboard is at the same height as your elbow with wrists slightly bent
- Check your seat depth to see that there are two to three inches of clearance behind your knee
- Use a document holder adjacent to your monitor if you need one to avoid looking down
Take breaks throughout the day
Getting up every 15 to 30 minutes to stretch, walk, or stand will help your body break up the effects of sitting and tiring your muscles, which makes poor posture more likely.
“Even just standing for 30 seconds is going to help get better blood flow and refresh your muscles,” says Haberzettl. If getting up every 15 to 30 minutes is not realistic, shoot for at least once an hour. Put technology to good use by setting a timer on your computer or phone to help remind you to take regular breaks.
Move in the opposite direction
Do you know what helps shoulders that cave forward? Rolling them backward.
“Look at the position that your body is in and move to the opposite direction,” said Haberzettl. For example, if your head and neck are stooped forward or down, look up and back, and hold that stretch for 10 seconds. If your spine is bent forward, stand up and do lumbar extensions. Opposite movements can help you relieve muscle tension and tightness.
Make adjustments throughout the day
Setting a timer as a reminder to get up, walk, and stretch every 30 minutes or so can also serve as a reminder to check in to see if your body is in good alignment. While you may start your workday sitting straight and following all the rules of good ergonomics, chances are that as your eyes get tired toward the end of the day, you’ll end up hunched forward.
“What I tell people is, instead of moving yourself closer to the screen, realize what’s happening and move the screen closer to you,” says Haberzettl.
One of the best ways you can ward off musculoskeletal issues is to fit as much physical activity into your day as possible, or at least before or after a long day sitting at your computer. A lot of people drive to work or work from home and then finish their day by sitting on the couch watching TV or continuing to surf the internet or scroll through their phones. That turns eight hours of sitting into 12 to 16 hours a day.
“If you’re active on either end of the day, you’re not as likely to suffer neck pain and headaches,” said Haberzettl. “Being active and making a concerted effort to have additional activity in your life outside of your sedentary device time is really important.”
Do posture correctors work?
You may have seen advertisements for posture braces, harnesses, shirts and digital reminders. While they may seem like a simple fix to the problem of hunching over or tech neck, it’s not a good idea to use them instead of practicing good ergonomics and being aware of your positioning.
“In the physical therapy world, we want the muscles to do the work. With devices, like the harness, you’re letting the device do the work, and you’re not training your muscles to be stronger,” said Haberzettl.
Using them for short periods to relieve pain or help you establish a good habit is ok. But, it’s not a good idea to rely on them for long-term posture improvements or aches and strain relief.
If you’re having persistent pain and discomfort, it’s best to seek out a formal evaluation. “A lot of the time, it’s just a simple change that can make a big difference in someone’s life,” said Dr. Strike.