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Tech neck, text neck and how to avoid them both

A simple exercise that helps you to improve awareness so that it's easier to improve your head and neck posture

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Sitting on a chair with head pulled back and up so that back of neck feels open and long. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

Apparently tech neck, aka text neck is a thing.

My sister told me about it and how at one point she got it so bad she couldn't lift her own head.

A chiropractor (or rather, a chiropractors video) showed her how to use a towel for a hand assisted head lift when getting out of bed.

I've experience something similar with my low back after some over enthusiastic squatting. I couldn't lift my own legs (say to pull on my shoes, or tie them up) without using my hands. Even riding a motorbike was a pain, trying to lift one leg off of the ground and onto the peg.

For myself, I found that I just needed to rest, or wait for the muscle soreness to go away. And after three or four days it did.

And I'm assuming that's what happened for my sister with her case of tech neck.

Once you get a neck that is so sore you can't use it without help, there's not much you can do. You just have to work around it.

So the question is, how do we avoid getting text neck or tech neck in the first place?

How do we avoid the situation where, on some days, our neck muscles get so tired, we can't use them to lift or support the weight of our own head?

What if our job requires us to use a computer or phone?

Chances are we'll continue using our phone or the computer, because we have to. i.e. it's our job.

What we then need is simple exercises to help reduce the possibility of one day having muscles so chronically shortened or dysfunctional that we have to use our hands (and a towel) to help lift or support our own head.

Better yet, I would suggest, is exercises that improve awareness of the head, chest and even the shoulders and how they all relate so that we can notice the way that we habitually hold them, say while working on a computer.

It is hard to maintain this awareness all of the time. And so this is something that we can work on gradually.

And so the idea while exercising is not just to counterbalance the tech neck or text neck head position, but to also improve awareness so that we can recognize when we are in a less than ideal position so that we can then correct it.

Interim measures, changing our work set-up

Something that can make posture control easier is changing the position of our devices where possible.

This can mean buying a separate keyboard and mouse if we use a laptop so that we can raise the screen while at the same time still being able to type and use a mouse without compromising our hands, arms and shoulders.

As for using a phone, we can try propping our phone holding hands elbow on a table or on the opposite arm across the chest so that our phone is closer to eye level. Or use a selfie stick to hold the phone at a less posture compromising height.

My mum used to remind me to "sit up straight"

Now I remember when I was a kid my mum saying to me "sit up straight."

Rather than telling you to sit up straight, the idea of these exercises is to feel your head, neck and chest while slouching and also in the head upright position.

Rather than going for the look of sitting up straight, I'd suggest going for the feel.

Why go for feel? I'm glad you asked.

Avoiding the overuse or over tensioning of postural muscles

If all you do is sit up straight, you may tend to over exert your postural muscles. It takes effort to sit up "straight". You are trying to make your spine feel straight. As a result, your brain exerts your spinal muscles with greater intensity so that you get more sensation.

Your brain doesn't really understand that straight is an end point. Instead it understands that to get straight you exert muscles against each other and to get more straight, you exert those same muscles with greater force.

It can be tiring and hard to maintain.

Minimizing the effort to sit up straight

If you focus on feeling your chest, neck and head as you sit up straighter, and if you practice moving into this position and out of it slowly and smoothly, you can then begin to notice that it doesn't take much effort at all to sit up straight.

Or at the very least, it isn't necessarily as hard as you might have thought.

Rather than going for the external look of sitting up straight, the idea is to feel from the inside when your head is balanced over your neck with your ribcage supporting a more vertical neck.

As a side note, if you turn these actions into habits, sitting up straight can become as easy as driving a car. Driving a car, when you notice something in the way you apply the brakes.

With feeling your body, you can notice when you are slouching, by feeling the slouch, and with practice, you can then turn sitting up straight into a habit.

Your body has built in sensors (You don't need to buy one)

For a while I used to see facebook ads for a postural sensor. You stuck this to your back, then while doing postural exercises (slouching and un-slouching) an app on your phone would allow you to sense when your posture was correct.

The simple postural exercise I'll describe here does more or less the same thing. But, instead of sticking a sensor to your back, you use your body's built-in sensors.

Yes, we have built in sensors. You don't need a smart yoga mat or smart clothes, or stick-on sensors. Your muscles and connective tissue do the same thing. They help your brain to sense and control your body. And with practice, you can also learn to use them to better sense and control your posture.

The anti-tech neck posture correcting exercises

The exercise is simple.

Do it slowly and also smoothly.

Repeat this slow and smooth action. Five times.

As you repeat the movements, notice your chest. Better yet, notice your sternum. As you move your head back and up what does your sternum do? Does it lift or lower?

As you sink your head forwards and down, then what does your sternum do? Does it lift or lower?

Focus on feeling your sternum

Repeat, the exercise, but focus on feeling your sternum lift as you move your head back and up.

Then feel it descend as you move your head forwards and down.

Using your ear holes as references

Next, focus on your ears, or more specifically your ear holes.

Our ear holes are approximately in line with the top of your spine and so they are good references. Instead of focusing on your head, focus on your ears or your ear holes.

When moving your head forwards you don't have to worry about your ear holes.

Work at keeping your head level from front-to-back

Generally, I suggest focusing on the ear holes because there can be a tendency when moving the head back to lift your chin. The idea is to keep the head reasonably level.

Focusing on the ear holes generally makes it easier to keep the head level from front to back as you move it back and up.

Focus on lengthening the back of your neck

Next, focus on the back of your neck.

As you move your ear holes back and up, focus on feeling the back of your neck lengthen.

Relax this length when moving your head forwards.

Adjusting the tension at the back of your neck

To adjust the sensation at the back of your neck try lifting or lowering your chin slightly.

Note, generally to lengthen the back of your neck you would draw your chin down and in, towards the pit of your neck.

That isn't the instruction. Instead, focus on feeling the back of your neck.

Try lifting and lowering your chin slight amounts, as if tuning into a radio station on a car radio.

Feel the back of your neck as you do this.

Notice how the sensation varies as you lift and lower you chin.

Repeat a few times so that you get a feel for this.

And then hold the position where the back of your neck feels comfortably long.

Further head and neck adjustments

A further adjustment is to vary how far back you move your head and even how high you lift your sternum.

So, after adjusting for chin tilt (or front to back head tilt), try also varying front-to-back positioning.

Rather than trying to pull your head as far back as possible, find a position just before this where your neck feels comfortably long but also where you neck muscles don't feel like they are working uncomfortably hard.

You can do the same thing with the amount of sternum lift (which corresponds to thoracic back bend and/or a downward pull on the backs of your ribs.)

Rather than going for maximum sternum lift, find a position just short of the maximum that feels comfortable.

Practice versus execution

Note, when repeating these actions as exercises, try to make the movements as big as possible. i.e. fully lift your sternum, and then fully sink it. Fully pull your head back, then fully sink it.

But when adjusting your posture, say while working in front of a computer then, adjust for comfort.

When working on your posture decide whether you are practicing, or whether you are executing. Sitting in front of a computer, you may want to focus on your work so what you are doing is executing (carrying out) good posture.

However, if you are taking a break, or you find that you still have problems feeling how your head and chest relate (or any other posture relevant point) then you can choose to practice.

If all of this adjusting is too much, then go back to the basic exercise.

Slowly and smoothly pull your ear holes back and up feeling your sternum lift and the back of your neck lengthening.

Then slowly and smoothly release your head forwards and down while feeling your sternum drop and your head move forwards and down.

I'll suggest that you repeat the exercise five times. Then for the sixth time work at holding the position for a slow ten count, adjusting if you choose to so that your neck feels comfortably long.

Noticing your posture so that you can correct it

Any time you are at your computer, or using your phone, if you all of a sudden notice that you are slouching, slowly allow your sternum to lift while at the same time drawing your ear holes back and up.

Note that because you are at your computer or looking at your phone, you chin may naturally descend. And so something you might choose to do is look straight ahead for a ten count.

More exercises for combatting tech neck and text neck

For a few more exercises for your neck where you can practice holding good neck and chest posture while stretching and strengthening your neck muscles, check out four simple neck stretches to help combat tech neck and text neck.

Noticing your work set-up

Something else that you can be aware of is how you use your phone and your computer set up.

As an example, if you have a lap top, you are going to be a bit limited in how you set up because the screen is attached to the keyboard. According to british health and safety standards, the idea screen height is with the top of the screen at 45 degrees of less with the eyes. Basically, you don't want to be looking down to type.

But if the screen of your laptop is positioned high up then you'll have to reach to type. And so it may be helpful to buy a detachable keyboard and even a detachable mouse, trackball or track pad.

You can then set up your computer monitor at an appropriate height while still being able to input without over reaching your arms. (This assumes that you aren't using a touch screen.)

Personally, I try to minimize buying accessories. I still use a 2015 macbook with all of the ports. But if you do have to buy, try them out first. Find a keyboard that has good key feel. (Find one that feels good to you if you aren't too limited by budget).

With a mouse or trackpad substitute, so that you aren't limited by surface (i.e. a glass table top in your favorite coffee shop) you might find an attachable trackpad or track ball is a better option.

How to hold your phone to avoid tech neck

If using a phone, you may find it helpful to prop your the elbow of your phone-holding hand on a table (if you are sitting) so that you can hold the phone closer to a horizontal eye-line. Or prop your elbow against your upper belly/lower ribcage using the other arm as a shelf. Switch hands when you need to.

If you have a selfie stick, and your are using the screen of your phone, then you could try talking using the selfie stickt to hold the phone closer to a head upright horizontal eye-line.

If you are texting, it can be a bit more tedious to hold the phone up at eye height. In this case, something you could try doing is keeping your head over your ribcage, but tilted down. This is as opposed to slouching and bringing your head forward and down.

If you have poor eye-sight, this might not be helpful. But, if your eyes are okay, then tilt your head forwards while keeping it poised over your ribcage. It would be as if you are leaning against a wall, and while looking down at your phone you are trying to keep the back of your head touching the wall or as close to the wall as possible.

Take breaks to work on your posture

In any case, the idea is to develop a setup that allows you to use your phone or computer in a way that doesn't compromise your posture.

Failing that, remember to take breaks, or work at holding good posture for longer periods of time while working.

The simplest way to do this is to be aware.

And to develop that awareness, practice the above exercises with awareness.

More exercise options for your shoulders and arms

One simple exercise for the arms and ribcage is to practice hanging.

If you have somewhere convenient that you can practice hanging from one or both arms (with your feet supported so that you can control how much weight your arm or arms are supporting), this video talks about how to use your hand, elbow, shoulder and even your ribs with awareness while practicing hanging from one or both arms.

While not specifically focused on the neck, it can affect the arm, shoulders and ribcage and so one way to think of this is that it works on foundation of your neck.

For two simple shoulder and arm stretches, check out the two simple shoulder stretches article.

Published: 2021 10 02
Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
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