Tech is turning millennials into a generation of hunchbacks
March 5, 2018 | 6:49pm | Updated
For years, Charles Youn, 29, suffered from upper-back pain and neck soreness that made him hunch his shoulders and caused him to wake up numerous times throughout every night. He was in pain and constantly fatigued, drinking too much coffee to combat the sluggishness.
“I learned to live with it,” says Youn, who works in development for leadership nonprofit Outward Bound and lives on the Upper East Side. “My upper back and neck would be so tight. My neck was always bent forward, and I just thought that’s how it was going to be.”
‘We’re seeing it in younger and younger children because they’re getting their phones at a younger age.’
This past fall, Youn consulted with chiropractor Dr. Christian Kang, who has a practice in the Flatiron District and explained he was holding his problem in the palms of his hands: his laptop and iPhone were causing his pain.
Youn suffers from “tech neck,” or forward head syndrome, a painful, increasingly common condition caused by slumping over devices for hours a day that leads the neck to lose its natural curve — and triggers a physiological imbalance in the upper body. Previously seen in middle-aged-or-older desk jockeys and dentists who hunch over patients, it’s now materializing in younger generations who grew up with smart phones, tablets and other personal devices.
“Now, 20-year-olds have the spine health of a 30- or 40-year-old. It’s an epidemic,” says Kang.
Dr. Brian Wallace, a chiropractor based in Bernardsville, NJ, says he’s witnessing the same thing at his practice. “We’re seeing it in younger and younger children because they’re getting their phones at a younger age,” he says. “It’s one of the most common things we see.” According to a 2016 study by the research firm Influence Central, the average age at which an American child gets their first smartphone is 10.3 years.
As the posture worsens, the upper back muscles stretch out, while the muscles in the front of the body become weaker and the neck creeps forward, which can make the head feel at least 10 pounds heavier than it is. Not only does it cause structural problems in the neck and back; Wallace says it can also spark breathing and panic issues.
“When you have that forward-rolled posture, it has a profound impact on the breathing. Children have become shallow breathers, which then affects anxiety levels because your nervous system can’t function properly,” says Wallace, adding that medical issues such as asthma and allergies can develop.
Dr. Vito Minervini, a chiropractor based in Rockaway, NJ, says young women are particularly susceptible to the condition because they have lower muscle density in their upper body area.
“It’s bad all around, but guys can take it more because they have more musculature,” says Minervini.
Sania Khiljee, a Houston-based entrepreneur and blogger, knows this all too well. The 27-year-old founder of Bumble Brain Box, a subscription box service focused on child development, saw her body simply give out as her business began to take off two years ago.
“I was literally looking down at my phone and laptop for hours every single day. Two of my discs got herniated and it pushed into nerves and then the muscles in my shoulders got really hard,” says Khiljee.
Khiljee’s doctors were explicit: Her tech overuse was fueling the frightening breakdown.
“It’s hard to explain, but my neck couldn’t support the weight of my head. I had no mobility.” She desperately sought out solutions, including forsaking a comfortable bed. “My bed was too soft, so I slept on the floor for months.”
In addition to workouts such as yoga and pilates, which can help strengthen the core and improve posture, this 10-minute routine is good for prevention and reversal of “tech neck” pain.
Try doing it during a break at work. “All of these exercises can be done in a chair or standing in front of your computer screen,” says Roland Rodriguez, a physical therapist at Atlantic Physical Therapy Center in Toms River, NJ.
“It’s the exact counter to the tech-neck symptoms of rounded shoulders and a forward neck,” says Rodriguez.
Stand up or sit tall in a chair and look directly forward. While keeping the chin level, shift the head backwards for five seconds and then return to the original position.
Do one set of 15 reps.
Upper trapezius stretch
“This stretches out the shoulder muscles that contract when you’re on a mouse or looking at a computer screen,” he says.
Sit facing forward. Place the right hand on the head so that the ends of the fingers extend toward the left ear. Then place the left hand under the left buttocks, sitting on the hand. Use the right hand to pull the head gently down, moving the right ear towards the right shoulder, until a stretch is felt on the left side of the neck. Hold for 30 seconds and gently release. Return to starting position. Repeat on left side.
Do each side three times.
“The pecs and shoulders get really tight with tech neck, so this goes in the opposite direction and stretches and extends the lumbar spine,” says Rodriguez.
Stand up straight and tuck in the chin. Raise both arms and clasp the hands at the base of the skull with the elbows pointing out to both sides. Pull the elbows back as far as you can and hold the position for 30 seconds.
Do one set of 10 reps.
Capular retraction with external rotation
“With typical tech-neck posture, the shoulder blades round and separate from each other. This pulls them back together,” says Rodriguez.
Stand tall with your chin tucked in and your arms at your sides, palms facing forward. Retract your scapulae by pulling the shoulder blades closer together and down (shoulders should not move upward toward the ears with this movement). Keeping the elbows straight and turn the palms and arms away from the body so that the thumbs are pointing backward. Hold for 10 seconds and return to the original position.
Do one set of 10 reps.