There’s no doubt that technology has its perks, from allowing us to work from all corners of the earth to meditating via an app at the touch of a finger. But despite the many advantages technology brings us every single day, it also has a downside—one that can be very painful if ignored. Americans suffer from a number of ailments relating to technology, including a type of back and shoulder pain that is now often referred to as “tech neck” (the repeated act of craning your neck forward and down over a screen, resulting in discomfort that can lead to strain and stiffness). The solution, however, isn’t to disconnect and revert back to powerless Pilgrim living. Instead, heed this advice from Sonima.com’s pain and anatomy advisor, Pete Egoscue: “If an activity is hurting us, take a look at the body. Pain is the body’s way of trying to tell us something.”
What is your body saying? It could be hinting at an imbalance. Maybe you’re not vertically loaded properly—meaning your head, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles aren’t stacking up right. Or perhaps you’re just not bearing weight evenly, says Egoscue, creator of the Egoscue Method for pain-free living.
To find out exactly what your body is telling you, tune in. Once you start paying attention to the subtle signals (usually accompanied by a minor ache), stretch or shift positions to continue enjoying your TV, laptop, smartphone or whatever device is captivating your attention in comfort and with peace of body and mind. Use Egoscue’s guide below to help translate your body’s messages and take appropriate action.
When this hurts: BACK, SHOULDERS, HEAD
Your body may be saying…change the way you sit.
Sitting with your shoulders slumped forward, hip flexors shortened, and back rounded can put extra stress on your lower back, which may curve into a ‘C’ shape instead of its natural ’S’ shape. This pain doesn’t come from only sitting, but also from being misaligned. Your body is compensating, Egoscue says.
Listen and learn: Look down at your feet. You want them hip-width apart facing forward with toes slightly turned in. Your knees will want to come together, but keep them out, he says. Then pull your shoulders down, relax your abs, and roll up and forward with your hips, putting an arch back into your lower back with your pelvis. In this position, he says, you’re vertically loaded. “That’s the way you sit without effort. Your body has just adapted and adjusted to what you have conditioned it to do.” Sit like this and you could notice back and shoulder pain dissipate and even see improvements in issues, like constipation and digestion, he says.
When this hurts: HEAD, NECK, ARM
Your body may be saying…look up!
The average human skull weighs between 10 and 11 pounds. Imagine that weight tipping over the front of your body. That’s the scenario when you text or email from your smartphone or laptop. “People think it’s just a head issue; but it goes a lot further than that,” says Aaron Brooks, founder of Perfect Postures in Newton, Massachusetts.
Listen and learn: When using a device you have to look down at, your back may round, pulling your shoulder blades away from your spine, he explains. Over time, muscles at the front of the body shorten; and ones at the back elongate. When muscles tighten, you can experience referred pain, says Brian Kelly, a physical therapist at Pivot Physical Therapy in Washington, DC. (That’s why you might suffer migraines, headaches, pains in your arms or hands, or shoulder tendonitis.) To take tension off of the muscles in your neck and upper back, hold your device just below eye level, so that you’re not looking up or down, Kelly says. You also want to sit tall, reminds Brooks. Roll your pelvis forward, increasing the arch in your lower back. This leads the muscles between your shoulder blades to contract, helping the head pull back, he says.
When this hurts: JAW, HEAD
Your body may be saying…chill out.
“The jaw is one of the most powerful muscles in the body,” Brooks says. Unfortunately, it’s an area hit hard by stress. Both teeth grinding and clenching have links to stress and anxiety. Clenching not only tenses that master muscle, but also the muscles of the temple and cervical area. Tightness here can cause headaches, jaw clicking, and make it hard to eat or talk depending on how severe the pain. Check your range of movement by opening your mouth wide. Muscles restricted or tight? Can’t keep your mouth open very long? Your jaw is likely pretty tight, Brooks says.
Listen and learn: Try a chin tuck. Pull your chin down toward your chest with your head straight, which will help lengthen some of the backside cervical muscles, he says. If you’re clenching a lot, your pectoral muscles can shorten, pulling your shoulders forward. Try stretching your arms out across a doorway so that your shoulders and elbows are straight. Step through the doorway with one foot. “This will decrease stress in the area of the jaw by way of releasing the chest muscles,” Brooks says. Then break the habit: Keep your mouth slightly open or your tongue in between your teeth to remind you not to clench.
When this hurts: WRISTS
Your body may be saying…consider your form.
Offices everywhere may be seeking ergonomic designs to quiet complaints of back pain or carpal tunnel, but Egoscue says most people who work in offices will suffer from these issues regardless. Why? Alignment. Interestingly enough, carpal tunnel has roots in shoulder positioning. If one hand is too far in front of the other, the front shoulder will sink down and your hand and forearm turn inward, explains Brooks.
Listen and learn: To realign, move the mouse closer to your body and lower its height. This will drop your shoulders and your trapezius muscles (over the back of your neck and shoulders) won’t want to engage as much, he says. You also want to make sure your wrist isn’t bent too much up or down—keep it as flat as possible.
Related: Simple Stretches for Office Workers
When this hurts: NECK, SHOULDER, CHEST
Your body may be saying…I need some air.
Thanks to our autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions, we don’t think about breathing, says Carolyn Appel, C.S.C.S., a master instructor at Equinox with a focus in biomechanics. But, she says, “we should be mindful of how it’s being done.” Why? Subpar breathing patterns are linked to muscle tightness, inadequate amounts of oxygen reaching your tissues, fatigue, back pain, and reduced concentration, she says.
Listen and learn: Take a deep breath, expanding your ribcage fully (your belly comes out). When you exhale, your ribs and belly shrink, helping expire carbon dioxide. Problem is, that’s not the way many of us breathe. Instead of doing this—and relying on our diaphragm and intercostal muscles (between the ribs), many of us breathe by elevating our upper ribs (if you’re doing this, your shoulders would rise when you breathe in and your belly would expand when you exhale), she says. This approach overtaxes small, accessory muscles. The solution: Mastering the diaphragmatic breath to beat pain before it even starts.