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Glued to your smartphone? It could be the cause of your neck pain

Glued to your smartphone? It could be the cause of your neck pain
Patients who suffer neck pain and strain are getting younger, say doctors.
PHOTO: The Straits Times file

SINGAPORE — Construction coordinator Jonathan Wu found himself often glued to his mobile devices during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 and because he was working from home, his lifestyle was sedentary.

At the time, he was no longer visiting project sites, and he attended meetings online using his smartphone or computer. 

Wu, 34, said: "I developed a bad habit where I started cradling my phone on one side of my neck while working, causing my neck to tilt at an odd angle for prolonged periods." 

Before he knew it, Wu was experiencing severe neck pain and headaches, which made it difficult for him to sleep or drive.

He said: "I was constantly in pain, and this caused me a lot of stress to the point that I told my boss that I could no longer work."

Wu is among the many patients with neck pain and strain that doctors are seeing now, and who, doctors say, are younger than those who suffered from such ailments in the past. 

Many of them suffer from a condition called tech neck syndrome — a repetitive stress injury caused by holding the head in a forward and downward position for long periods of time. 

Also known as text neck, the condition is also linked to symptoms like muscle stiffness and persistent neck pain — a result of prolonged used of electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers.

When Wu visited a doctor in 2022, he was told that he likely suffered from tech neck syndrome and fibromyalgia, a condition that can lead to lasting muscle pain and fatigue.

He underwent platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy, which aims to reduce inflammation and aid healing. PRP involves extracting plasma from a patient's blood to inject into injured areas.

During therapy, Wu received injections at the back of his neck shoulders and upper back to reduce inflammation and aid the healing process. 

He was also prescribed medication like nerve stabilisers and muscle relaxants, which he is still taking today. 

Wu no longer suffers from neck pain and has since resumed work. He also regularly does gently stretching exercises and practices better posture, he said. 

He said: "This experience has opened my eyes to the fact that stress and poor posture can play a big role in neck and back pain and cause serious issues if untreated."

Dr Kwong Seh Meng, medical director of DR+ Medical & Paincare East Coast in Katong, said the demographic of patients with tech neck has shifted away from those in their 40s since the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.

Now, it is more common to see more people in younger age groups suffer symptoms of tech neck, such as patients in their mid-to-late 20s, he added, and it is usually due to bad posture. 

Orthopaedic surgeon at Parkway East Hospital Razmi Rahmat said the bulk of his patients who complained of neck pain were in their 50s when he first started work as a spine surgeon in 2002.

Now, his patients are "getting younger and younger", he added.

Dr Razmi said: "I am even seeing teenagers and patients in their early 20s who have started work and rely heavily on the use of laptops and smartphones on a regular basis."

He estimated that about 80 per cent of his tech neck patients would fall into the younger age group. 

Dr Thor Timothy A Chutatape, a medical consultant at Novena Pain Management Centre, said young people are more susceptible to tech neck since they use mobile devices more because of their social media use.

He said: "Digital mobile gaming is also incredibly addictive and intense. The typical gamer stays in the same position for long periods of time without stretching, completely focused and hunched over their device."

Dr Kwong said signs of tech neck include pain in the neck, shoulders and upper back. Headaches, muscle stiffness and a reduced range of neck motion are also likely symptoms. 

If untreated, the neck injury may negatively affect one's quality of life, said Sengkang Community Hospital senior physiotherapist Beh Jyh Yun.

"The sustained poor body posture can actually lead to forward head posture with rounded shoulders and kyphotic back associated with tight hamstrings and gluteal muscles," she added. A kyphotic back refers to one which has an excessive forward curvature.

The lack of early intervention might also result in the inflammation of soft tissues in the neck, spine degeneration, and chronic issues such as pinched nerves and herniated discs, said Dr Kwong.

Doctors said anyone suffering from neck pain should seek treatment as soon as possible, and opt for non-invasive or surgical choices.

Injections — which include pain medicine like anti-inflammatory agents and muscle relaxants — may be administered to alleviate muscle spasms and inflammation in affected areas, said Dr Kwong. 

Non-surgical options like physiotherapy and traditional Chinese methods, such as acupuncture, are also available, said Dr Thor.

Dr Kwong said painkillers are "merely band-aid solutions that do not address the underlying cause of pain or contribute to healing damaged tissues". 

For more serious cases, surgical procedures can remove the disc in the neck or the use of artificial disc implants may be advised, said Dr Razmi.

But prevention is better than cure, and doctors said lifestyle habits like reducing time spent on mobile phones and regular exercise helped prevent muscle stiffness. 

Dr Thor said the best way to overcome the "impending epidemic" of neck problems is for young people to reduce their usage of electronic devices.

He said: "They need to be still, to breathe, and to just observe and enjoy the world and people around them again, rather than find an escape in the digital dystopia."

Tips to prevent a tech neck:

  • Avoid slouching or leaning forward while using electronic devices, and use them at eye level.  
  • Take frequent breaks and move away from your digital device. One should take a break lasting at least 10 minutes for every hour of sitting. 
  • Perform simple neck and back stretches such as chin tucks and neck rotations to ensure your muscles are not being tightened. 
  • Exercise regularly, for at least 20 minutes three to four times a week. This helps to keep the neck and back healthier and stronger.

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This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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