Hunching over while browsing the web on your iPad or texting a friend on your smart phone could be causing the pain in your neck and upper back, a connection most patients don't make, according to Dr. Nick Chicoine.
Forward head posture, an improper posture problem where a person drops their head and rounds their shoulders to look down, Chicoine said, has been around forever, but only recently has the condition become known as "text neck."
"Normally we see necks that look like this in whiplash, but we're now seeing younger patients come in who have this forward head posture," said Chicoine, a chiropractor at the BAC Clinic Of Chiropractic & Spine Rehabilitation, 1501 Nebraska St. "It was technology, playing video games."
About six months ago, Kory Zimney said he started reading articles about tablet users experiencing discomfort in their neck, but he has yet to encounter a patient suffering from it.
"We call it (text neck) due to the tablets, but I think it's any static position where you're looking down for a long period of time," said Zimney, a physical therapist at Mercy Business Health, 3500 Singing Hills Blvd.
Zimney said some people may experience strain in their neck, shoulders and upper back within 15 minutes of using a tablet while others could spend four hours looking down at it and not feel any discomfort.
"It's just due to your genetic make-up, your strength, your past experiences with it, how you've been conditioned," he said. "There's a huge range of variables."
In an exam room at the BAC Clinic, Chicoine bent a flexible model of the spine forward to illustrate what forward head posture does to the body.
Chicoine explained that as the neck goes forward, the weight of the head shifts from the middle of the spine to the front of the spine. Over time, that imbalance in weight, he said, can lead to arthritis and spinal degeneration.
Texting, reading, even sleeping on too many pillows, Chicoine said, causes a person to tip his or her head down and lose the curvature in the spin.
"Most of the time they don't know and they don't realize that's what happened," he said. "Anything you do that's going to keep your head in flexion is just going to take that curve out of your neck. When you take that curve out of your neck, you put more pressure on the front of your spine."
Using proper posture - back over shoulder, shoulder over hip, hip over knee, knee over ankle - Chicoine said, is the key to preventing "text neck."
Zimney recommends avoiding static positions - sitting on the couch watching TV for an extended period of time or looking down at an iPad for several hours. Instead, he said people should find a way to move throughout the day.
If you start to feel sore and stiff, Zimney said, that's your body's way of telling you to change positions and move a little.
"Gathering movement and doing more activity in general is going to be more healthy for us," he said.
Traction, a medieval-looking machine that uses weight to correct the curvature of the spin, is a common treatment for "text neck" that Chicoine likens to orthodontic braces.
"We're just keeping their neck in a position that would be a mirror image of what their spine is doing," he said.
Patients undergo traction three times a week starting at five minutes and working up to 20 minutes. Fifteen pounds is a common weight, but Chicoine said it depends on the patient's comfort level.
Once they are able to tolerate 20 minutes, Chicoine said they have the option to go 10 minutes with more weight, up to 30 pounds.
"It's not the most comfortable, but it's definitely not painful," he said of traction. "After every treatment, we use ice to bring down any inflammation."
Chicoine said that usually after 24 traction sessions, changes in a patient's spine are visible on X-rays.
"It all depends on how far gone the spine is," he said. "That's why it's important to catch it while they're young."