When organisations transitioned their staff from offices to working from home (WFH) during the Coronavirus global pandemic, employees rejoiced. However, these very employees are now fast finding working from home a literal pain in the neck.
Tech neck, also called text neck, a problem that occurs from spending prolonged periods with the head and neck extended too far forward over your body is a rising complaint amongst many. It is especially a problem for those who are on their mobile phones, laptops, gaming devices and the like for hours at a stretch.
According to Dr Sujit Jos, orthopaedic surgeon and Head of Department at Institute of Advanced Orthopaedics, MOSC Medical College Hospital, Ernakulam, sitting in awkward positions for long periods results in back and neck pains. “If this continues over an extended time, it can lead to an early onset of cervical disc problem and cervical spondylosis,” he says.
CA Sapna Pillai, a chartered accountant-turned-techie suffers from tech neck. Long hours spent staring at the computer at an incorrect angle is a reason behind the chronic pain. “My doctor gave me a string of advice, right from how I should look at the computer screen to what kind of pillow I should use at night.”
Techie Maya Nair has a dull ache that radiates from her neck to her shoulder. “My son has online classes so has taken over my husband’s work desk. My husband now uses the dining table as his work-from-home office. Till recently, I have been using the living room as my work space. I have, however, started sharing the dining table with my husband, as my doctor said that working from the comforts of my sofa for a prolonged period is not advisable. We are planning to get ourselves ergonomic chairs as my husband has recently started complaining of similar pains.”
According to Sreekes KG, Chief Physiotherapist at Vel Physiotherapy Consultancy in Thiruvananthapuram, the number of tech neck cases has skyrocketed in the past few months.
He observes that while some have office chairs and desks at home, many are battling tech neck as they make do with less than ideal set up consisting of beds, coffee tables, couches and dining tables. “The lockdown happened so quickly that most people were not equipped to work from home for a prolonged period.”
Dr Sudhir Pai, orthopaedic surgeon at Cosmo Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram, feels that as children now start using smartphones and tablets at younger ages, tech neck is starting to develop earlier in people’s lives. “Tech neck was once associated with techies. However, with the Covid-prompted shift from an office setting to working from home, many individuals have turned their dining tables, sofas, and even beds into temporary workstations. Laptops are placed on laps even as the upper spine and neck muscles are stretched to peer into screens," he says. It is not limited to a single age group. He adds, "I have had everyone from children who are hooked to mobiles, adolescents who are busy with online classes, to elderly women who are actively catching up with friends and family on social media come to me complaining of neck pain."
According to health practioners, at first one might experience fatigue or stiffness as the neck muscles strain to support the head when it is tilted forward. “If left unnoticed, it can turn into pain or even regular headaches that affects one’s ability to work,” says Dr Sudhir.
Dr Sujit points out how in particularly bad cases, tech neck can cause radiating pain down the arm, which can result in a pinched nerve if left untreated.
“However, head tilt is becoming commonplace that most people don’t even realise they are doing it. In fact, in some cases, people can be so engrossed in the content they are reading or watching that they don’t even notice that they are experiencing neck pain or fatigue,” says Sujit.
Over time, this can even cause an early onset of arthritis in the neck, say the experts.
However, simple exercises can improve posture, warding off those aches and pains. Sreekes recommends stretching, strengthening exercises and being conscious of one’s posture.
“Hold your phone or tablet up close to eye level to avoid bending your neck forward. Slouching puts stress on your spine and neck. One should not remain seated in the same position for extended hours. Switch to a chair that has a headrest and an arm rest. The screen of your laptop should be just below your eye level. You can elevate the height of the screen to avoid the strain on your neck by propping the laptop with books. Pay attention to your body. If you experience pain in your neck, between the shoulder blades, numbness or tingling in the arms or even frequent headaches, it’s best to make changes or reduce any head forward posture straining your neck,” he says.
If any such symptoms appear, which include the hands or palm getting numb, it is wise to consult a doctor and get some physiotherapy. Medicines should only be used if they are prescribed by a doctor.