‘Text neck’ is the term used by spine surgeons to describe the neck pain and damage sustained from looking down at your cell phone, tablet or other wireless devices too frequently or for too long. It can, no shit, lead to early wear-and-tear on the spine, degeneration of the nerves and even spine surgery. And since teenagers might be the worst — conceivably spending 6,400 hours in this position every year, compared to 1,400 hours for the typical adult — we spoke to a recent high school graduate who’s doctor diagnosed her with text neck last year.
It began as a stabbing pain in my neck. Every time I lifted or extended my left arm it felt as though someone was using a pickaxe to sever the tendons that connected my left shoulder to my neck. When I told my parents about it, they didn’t take it too seriously and assured me it would get better. After all, in middle school, I had a similar, less severe stabbing pain in my neck that went away after a day or two. This time, however, it lasted a month. And it came back again after just a few weeks.
I told my dad about how much pain I was in, but he still didn’t take it seriously until he saw me reach for a door handle and witnessed my arm retract before it even made it to the door knob. The pain was so severe that when I extended my arm, it would reflexively jolt back.
He now agreed: It was time to go see a doctor.
And so, I went to see a neurologist my dad had gone to for some nerve issues he’d experienced in the past. He took four X-rays of my upper body. A week later when the doctor showed them to me, he told me that my neck was backwards. “Ummm, what?” I asked. He explained that when you look at a side view of a person’s posture, you should be able to see their head, but the concave in my spine was bad enough that my head was shooting so far forward that it wasn’t in the X-ray. Next, he explained that I basically have the spine of someone in their late 60s.
At that point, I was freaked out. I knew something was wrong, but like my parents, I thought the problem was temporary. Not something that “only appears in people in their late 60s.” It didn’t help that the doctor’s voice seemed panicked, too. It’s possible he was trying to scare me, but he said if I didn’t do something soon, I’d need a few different neck surgeries — one of which would include fusing metal rods in my spine.
My dad spent the whole night researching how it was possible that his 19-year-old daughter had the spine of her grandmother. The answer, according to Google and confirmed by my doctor: Text neck. It was far from inconceivable. In middle school, during my so-called peak texting and phone usage days, I’d say I was on my phone or tablet for as much as 10 hours a day. Even now, I spend about five hours a day on either my phone or laptop. Though I never brought it up to my friends, I can’t imagine that they don’t have some of the same text-neck symptoms since they were the ones responding to all my texts (which probably number in the tens of thousands).
The doctor prescribed eight sessions of physical therapy to help strengthen the muscles in my back and to help straighten my posture. One of the exercises involved laying flat on my back and raising weights with my arms. He also said that I should try to minimize my phone usage and that I should hold any wireless device at eye level as often as possible. The last thing he said was to be mindful of how I sat.
It was only then I realized how much of a natural sloucher I was — at times leaning so far forward in my seat that my butt was barely in the chair — as well as how much I relied on my hand to support my head and neck. The problem was that now that I was forced to pay so much attention to my posture, it made focusing in class that much harder.
Nowadays I make a concerted effort to stay off my phone as much as possible. I also exercise three to four times a week so that when school starts again I’m not dying of pain. And currently, surgery seems unlikely. Still, I do worry about my neck’s future. In that way, it’s sort of like global warming: I can’t ever completely stop things from getting worse, but I’m at least making a concerted effort to slow down the decay.