These days, many of us are spending a lot more time looking forward. While planning ahead and considering the future is a positive thing, when it comes to your neck, too much of a forward focus can be a bad thing. A forward head posture is more common as we hunch over our phones, laptops, and steering wheels with increasing frequency. The resulting “nerd neck” can bring with it pain and tension up and down the spine. How to fix nerd neck and still meet the demands of daily life? Here are some of the best approaches to easing the pain of a forward head posture.
What is nerd neck?
Nerd neck, also known as text neck or tech neck, is a forward head posture where the skull actually floats one or more inches in front of the cervical spine. Our cervical spine has a natural gentle curve forward and up to catch the base of the skull, but nerd neck exaggerates that curve.
In addition to this exaggeration, most people with nerd neck also tilt their head back, lifting their chin slightly. This places pressure on the upper cervical vertebrae as well.
This exaggeration and pressure have disastrous effects. The spine is beautifully designed as the body’s support structure, keeping us centered and aligned to provide balance in our body. With a forward head posture, the weight of the head throws this balance off. For every inch your head moves forward out of alignment, your shoulders carry an additional ten pounds of pressure.
Imagine carrying a small toddler on your back up the stairs to bed. Pretty easy, right?
Now imagine carrying that same toddler around all day long. Sitting at a desk, walking down the street, shopping for groceries. That toddler adds significant strain and pressure on your entire body, starting with the sides of the neck and shoulders and moving down the lower back. You might find yourself with increasingly rounded shoulders as you try to support the toddler that your head has become, leading to all sorts of mechanical issues in your body.
Nerd neck has become even more common as our workplace has changed. More people working in computer-related industries started this trend. And, in 2020 as people began to work at home in response to COVID-19, hastily assembled home workspaces added to the problem. It sounds like a bonus to work on a comfy couch in your jammies, but the lack of support can hurt over time. Even for people who are lucky enough to have a designated workspace at home, poorly laid out workstations can lead to rounded shoulders and poor posture.
While too much driving and screen time are the primary causes of nerd neck, there are other risk factors. They include:
- Carrying an overloaded backpack
- Excessive gaming
- Sleeping with your head out of proper alignment (too high)
- Injuries to the neck or shoulders
- Unbalanced physical activity (e.g., tennis)
- Occupations with unbalanced repetitive motion (such as a hairstylist, painter, massage therapist, etc.)
These days, it is safe to say that the majority of people have some degree of forward head posture.
Do I have nerd neck?
First, the good news. While most people have some degree of forward head posture, many of these cases can be gently corrected by making simple adjustments.
But the first step is to know what the signs and symptoms are and to receive a proper diagnosis. Common signs of nerd neck include the following:
- Tension headaches
- Shoulder pain
- Neck pain
- Rounded shoulders (kyphosis or “dowager’s hump”)
- Muscle spasms
- Chronic fatigue
- Restricted breathing
- Temporal mandibular joint (TMJ) pain
- Sleep apnea
- Numbness and tingling of the arms and hands
Long term, the symptoms become more serious. You might experience reduced mobility in the shoulders, arthritis in your neck, bulging cervical discs, osteoporosis, and vertebral fractures. Pain may become severe and chronic, largely affecting your everyday life.
One of the simplest ways to figure out if you have a forward head posture can also be done at home.
- Stand with your back to a wall
- Press your shoulder blades and heels to the wall
- Keep feet hips width distance apart
When you do this, does your skull make contact with the wall? If not, chances are good you have some degree of tech neck.
There are other ways to diagnose nerd neck, though. Your doctor will collect a complete medical history that includes things like the work you do, when the symptoms began, and any underlying injuries or past trauma. They will conduct a complete physical exam to check for areas of tenderness and limited mobility.
Over time and in severe cases, X-rays can pick up the changes in your spine. Your doctor may also order an MRI or a CT scan. In some cases, a bone scan may also be recommended to check for bone thinning or potential damage.
As noted above, you may be able to ease your pain without intervention, but if pain becomes debilitating or life-altering, check in with your doctor.
How to fix nerd neck: 11 approaches
In thinking about how to fix nerd neck, it’s best to start with conservative treatments before trying more interventional therapies.
Here are 11 treatment approaches to try. As always, work with your doctor before attempting many of these on your own.
1. Notice the problem
Start at the very beginning by becoming aware of when you are thrusting your head forward. This type of retraining can go a long way.
Pay special attention when you are driving or working at your computer. A sticky note on your screen or steering wheel can help.
2. Make ergonomic changes
Ergonomics is the study of the way we use our bodies in an environment.
Consider driving. If your body is too far back from the steering wheel, you will need to hunch your shoulders to reach it. If your rearview mirror is tilted up too high, you might lift your chin to see who’s behind you.
These are easy fixes. Adjust the distance to the steering wheel so that you can reach ten and two without hunching. Add a pillow behind your lower back to encourage a natural lumbar curve. Tilt the rearview mirror down so you have to keep your chin level to see what’s behind you.
Whether you are working remotely or heading to the office every day, ergonomic changes can make a world of difference there, too. Pain from sitting at a desk is very common, but ergonomics can help.
Try these adjustments:
- Sit closer to your desk so you don’t have to reach forward
- Use a pillow at your lower back to protect its natural curve
- Keep your feet flat on the floor directly below your knees
- Place your keyboard so your forearms are parallel with the floor, and elbows directly below your shoulders
- Adjust your computer monitor so that you can read it with your chin parallel to the floor (not tilted up or down)
3. Shop for accessories
The adjustments above can go a long way towards relieving tech neck, but sometimes accessories can help.
Look for desk chairs with built-in ergonomic support and computer accessories that keep wrists and arms at the proper angles.
4. Dump the extra gear
If you are a student lugging around biology textbooks or someone who carries their whole life in a backpack on a daily basis, it’s time to downsize.
Chances are good that the biology textbook has an online counterpart. Keep the heavy text at home for studying and use the online version when you are away from home.
Similarly, if you bring a heavy backpack to work every day, take a look at what’s really essential. Think like a long-distance hiker and get rid of things you don’t absolutely need. If you have your own office and can store things there, take advantage of that, too.
5. Start doing regular nerd neck exercises
Sure, you might do a few neck rolls after a particularly long morning at your computer, but that might not be enough to relieve neck pain. Nerd neck exercises, done regularly, don’t just provide a break at work. They can also strengthen the muscles in the neck and all along the spine to help actually correct a forward head posture.
Consider yoga to relieve neck pain, or try a few of the following stretches in regular intervals throughout the day:
- Release the trapezius muscle
- Stretches at the wall to relieve tight pectoral muscles
- Wall angels to stabilize the spine and restore the proper cervical curve
- Open the sides of the neck with easy SCM stretches
All of these can be done at your desk on a regular basis. These stretching breaks remind you to pay attention to your posture, too.
6. Practice self-massage
We may not all be able to head to regular massage therapy, but we can certainly take a break to administer self-massage to tight, sore neck muscles.
7. Get regular full-body exercise
While we are focusing in this article on how to fix nerd neck, we cannot ignore the importance of overall physical health. Full-body exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling, and yoga help us in many different ways. For example, exercise:
- Relieves stress that can cause muscles to tense up
- Helps maintain a healthy weight
- Builds overall strength to support the whole body
Another benefit of exercise is that it helps fight fatigue. When we get tired, we have a tendency to slouch and slump. This can make nerd neck worse.
The recommended amount of exercise for maintaining good health is 150 minutes a week, spread out over the course of the week. This is less than three hours of exercise a week, a little over 20 minutes a day. Wake up with a short yoga routine, or incorporate a daily walk during lunch or after dinner with the family.
8. Try a nerd neck pillow
If sleep is a literal pain in the neck, time to consider a nerd neck pillow to get a better night of sleep.
This type of pillow provides support that keeps the cervical spine aligned properly: not too high, and not too low. Look for a better pillow for neck pain, and ask your doctor for recommendations if you’re not sure what works best for you.
9. Consider physical therapy
Physical therapists design tailored exercises to focus on your body and what it needs to heal from tech neck. Their targeted exercises can go a long way to increase strength, relieve pain, and restore your range of motion.
10. Visit a chiropractor
Chiropractors specialize in misalignment of the spine. As part of a treatment plan that includes exercise and ergonomic changes, chiropractors can identify and adjust mechanical issues that are contributing to neck or shoulder pain.
11. Consider more interventional strategies
As you work to correct the mechanical issues causing nerd neck, you might want to explore more interventional therapies to help with pain while you rehabilitate your neck and spine.
Some of these include:
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
- Cervical epidural steroid injections
- Occipital nerve blocks
- Radiofrequency ablation
These interventional strategies (and other interventional neck pain treatments) are just one part of a comprehensive treatment approach.
At Arizona Pain, our pain specialists understand the demands of our daily life and the toll that can take on our bodies.
We know how to fix nerd neck. If you are looking for neck pain treatment in Arizona, get in touch to schedule your appointment today!