‘Tech Neck’ and other modern ailments…
By Dr Jeetinder Khasriya, GPDQ
General Practice had become a pain in the neck. I mean that in the literal sense: eight years in, I had developed neck pain. My general indolence combined with busy desk based GP-clinics and occasional trips to the examination couch (or the patients’ home) had all taken their toll. After a particularly gruelling morning clinic, I decided to assess my options. Looking down at my smartphone produced an audible crack from my neck. This was serious: something had to be done.
Millennials may be the first generation upon which the results of a tech-reliant lifestyle will be wholly evident, however problems associated with technology can seemingly affect any age group. Google produced a plethora of material concerned with modern day work-related ailments, however it was clear (from the general lack of evidence based studies) that the impact of technology on our bodies was yet untested and unknown. The consequences are far-reaching and every system is vulnerable: the central nervous system from the relentless stream of information fed to us through our eyes and ears, the musculoskeletal system from our newly adopted daily postures, the endocrine system from our changing diets and sleep patterns. Never has the potential to change our evolution as a species been so powerful.
Neck Pain “Tech neck”
Looking down at a device in our hand or looking up at a incorrectly positioned monitor seem to be the most popularly recognised reasons for neck pain. Research is still unclear as to the connection between the loss of normal cervical lordosis and neck pain. Current figures indicate that at least 10% of the population suffers with neck pain at any one time and it seems it seems these figures may rise with the fast adoption of technology in everyday tasks. ’Tech neck’ is most probably a combination of factors relating to the way we use our necks, shoulders and eyes in modern life. Thankfully, physiotherapy has some good clinical evidence and a good way to manage neck related symptoms is regular exercise at home or in the office. YouTube is a valuable resource for neck-specific exercises but the emphasis here is on consistency, as recovery is generally slow, requiring hard work and persistence. If your neck pain lasts for longer than 2 weeks, is getting worse or is causing pain or ‘pins and needles’ anywhere, consult a doctor.
The link between nocturnal use of short wavelength (blue) light, melatonin and changing sleep patterns has been well researched. The way people consume media has changed so that many now use tablet devices to watch online content or read. The problem with this is its portability. Where in the past, you may have watched the television and then retired to bed in a separate room, we now have a device that you can take around the home-space. Increasingly the favoured place of viewing is the bedroom. Insomnia could be a worsening problem and is again multifactorial. No doubt, the stress of modern life and the variability of the weather recently through global warming is having its toll as well. Current advice is to cut down the evening screen time. Some digital reading devices (like the e-ink in the amazon kindle) eliminate short wavelength light. iPads also now have ‘night mode’ where this type of light is filtered from the display. Alternatively, there is always the simple option of printed word, which is making a noticeable resurgence in the marketplace. Always get advice from a doctor before embarking on any over the counter or prescription methods to help you with sleep.
These types of headaches result from tension in the muscles around the neck and the face. Poor posture (see above) and screen reading could be the problem. People are increasingly resorting to over the counter pain relief, which leaves one susceptible to the phenomena of ‘Medication overuse headache.’ For the desk workers out there, I have found that turning the brightness setting on my computer monitor down by half helps enormously. Other tricks include increasing the text size on your phone, or even going for a model with a larger screen. Exercises that mobilise the neck are again helpful.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder
The growing numbers of people suffering with generalised anxiety could be attributed to better screening and diagnosis, however there is a growing concern about the impact that modern technology is having on our psyche. The pace of life has accelerated exponentially in the last 10 years alone and many struggle to keep up with it. For example, in my practice, I have seen an avalanche of young patients presenting with anxiety related primarily to social media interactions. Symptoms include an inability to relax, being unable to “switch off” your thoughts or worries, irritability and an impending sense of doom. A simple screening tool (the GAD-7 questionnaire) is freely available online and will take 2-3 minutes to complete.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder can be a serious problem and you should consult with a health professional to discuss treatment options if you think you may be suffering. This could range from talking therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy to medication.
What else can be done? Being mindful of your posture and screen habits is one thing but the tendency to revert to kind is irresistible. How familiar is the situation where one soon finds oneself supine on a couch sporting an iPad on your chest whilst Netflix is blaring in the background on the television. One solution put forward by various forums was “unplugging”. Simply put, it means physically removing your mobile connection to the Internet. Very recently, a movement towards ‘dumb’ (as opposed to ‘smart’) phones has arisen which is a great example. The information overload from constantly ‘connected’ devices has been identified as the problem for some people. Buying a basic phone with no data capability, thereby unplugging you from 24/7 Internet is hailed as a “powerful and liberating change.” Many people have reported better clarity of thought, more organisation and less procrastination. Similarly, for the first time in some years, the big social media platforms have noticed people leaving them in droves. To those who remain, deactivating their account on Facebook or Twitter would seem like an insane suggestion, and herein lies part of the problem. Progeny aside, can you think of anything else that did not exist 13 years ago but that now an integral part of your everyday life?
Tech is not all bad though. Building exercise into your daily routine has never been easier thanks to smart watches and fitness apps. The classical gym membership is not always necessary when you can stay consistently active and have an objective measure of that activity.
After seeing a specialist and organising some physiotherapy, I finally made some progress with my neck problem. Being informed about the hidden dangers of technology is the best way to protect your health and after my experience, I find myself spending much more time with my patients spreading the word!
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