Harmful Posture Over Time Feels Normal

Why our social media habits are a pain in the neck

US surgeons seeing increase in patients with neck and upper back pain likely to be related to poor posture when using mobile phones

Report in ‘The Spine Journal’ says today’s children may need surgery by the time they reach their late 20s if they do not curb their social media use

Here’s a game to play the next time you are stuck in a queue. Try to spot somebody not looking down at their phone. Then ignore that person and examine the others. You don’t need to be a doctor to recognise that most of them will be holding their necks at a strange angle that makes them look almost like giraffes as they push their heads forward.

This awkward positioning would not be a problem were it not that our heads are rather heavy, weighing 4.5kg (10lbs) on average, and our necks are not particularly muscly.

We are designed to hold our heads upright. When we push our heads forward, whether to look down at the phone in our hands or forward to focus on a computer screen, neck strain is increased. The farther forward we push our heads, the more strain is put on the spine.

A recent report in The Spine Journal, the official publication of the North American Spine Society, says surgeons there are seeing an increase in patients with neck and upper back pain which is likely to be related to poor posture when using mobile phones. It even has a name: tech neck. The neck naturally curves backwards, but surgeons are seeing that curve reversed, giving patients disc or alignment problems. The authors of the report are concerned that today’s children may need surgery by the time they reach their late 20s if they do not curb their social media use.

Bad posture can contribute to a bulging disc due to degeneration of the cervical spine, or cervical radiculopathy where a nerve leaving the neck is pinched.

Most people carry the head too far forward, according to Frank Kennedy, an Alexander technique practitioner in Mount Merrion, Co Dublin. “This knocks the body out of kilter and has a big impact on posture. It imposes wear and tear on the joints and can make you look an inch or two shorter than your natural height,” he says.

“We need to expand our awareness of how we move,” he says. “Look at the screen with your eyes, rather than locking onto it. Concentrate with your mind, rather than jutting your head forward.”

Our tendency to be reactive does not help, he adds. “We jump up at everything from a text message to a door bell. Overreaction triggers tension pathways in the body. If we can create a gap between stimulus and response, then we can learn to stop tension. You don’t have to wait for the weekend or for a holiday to relax. We look for relaxation in each action.”

Part of the difficulty in helping people to change is that harmful posture over time feels normal

When under pressure, we tend to hold our breath. “Holding the breath sends the wrong signal to the brain,” says Kennedy. “We can learn to relax, breathe and send a message to feel at ease.”

Rose Costello is a journalist, fitness instructor and health coach who works one-to-one and in groups with people looking to get healthy. See zest4life.com

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