Today's Screen Time Means More Neck
and Back Pain

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Be aware of your posture
How can you limit the damage? The first step is simply to become aware of your posture. If you spend a lot of time on a phone or using a desktop computer, laptop or tablet, pause regularly to notice how your body is situated. Is your back curved? Shoulders hunched? Head bent downward? Chin jutting forward or head slumped toward one shoulder? Legs crossed, hiking one hip higher than the other?

Good ergonomics
If you use a laptop or desktop computer:

Choose a chair with good lumbar support, or place a pillow against the small of your back. Position the top of your monitor just below eye level. That helps whether you use a desktop or a laptop, notes Dr. Jack Dennerlein, principal investigator of the tablet study and an adjunct professor of ergonomics and safety at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Sit up straight with your head level, not bent forward. Keep your shoulders relaxed and your elbows close to your body. Keep hands, wrists, forearms and thighs parallel to the floor.

If you use a handheld phone:

As with any phone, avoid propping it between your head and shoulder. Consider investing in a comfortable, hands-free headset. Depending on your needs, you can choose one equipped for Bluetooth or designed for use with cordless phones, landlines, or computers.

If you use an e-reader or tablet:

Buy a case that allows you to prop the device at a comfortable viewing angle, and rest it somewhere that doesn’t require you to bend your neck much. Keep in mind that it’s best to position the device with the top edge just below eye level. Some surfaces, such as a kitchen table, may be too low even with the case.

Take a break every 15 minutes. Change your hands or shift your weight. Stand up or sit down.

Improve your posture everywhere
Good posture away from the screen also pays many dividends. When you’re standing, it trims your silhouette and projects confidence. It lessens wear and tear on the spine and helps you breathe deeply, so your body gets the oxygen it needs. Properly aligning your body during stretches, or other exercises, can net you greater gains and fewer injuries. If your posture is good, the bones of the spine—the vertebrae—are correctly aligned.

You can improve your posture—and head off neck and back pain—by practicing some imagery and a few easy exercises. Here are four flexibility exercises to help the deskbound turn good posture into less pain:

Think of a straight line passing through your body from ceiling to floor (your ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should be even and line up vertically). Now imagine that a strong cord attached to your breastbone is pulling your chest and rib cage upward, making you taller. Try to hold your pelvis level—don’t allow the lower back to sway. Think of stretching your head toward the ceiling, increasing the space between your rib cage and pelvis. Picture yourself as a ballerina or ice skater rather than a soldier at attention.

Shoulder blade squeeze
Sit up straight in a chair with your hands resting on your thighs. Keep your shoulders down and your chin level. Slowly draw your shoulders back and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for a count of five; relax. Repeat three or four times.

Upper-body stretch
Stand facing a corner with your arms raised, hands flat against the walls, elbows at shoulder height. Place one foot ahead of the other. Bending your forward knee, exhale as you lean your body toward the corner. Keep your back straight and your chest and head up. You should feel a nice stretch across your chest. Hold this position for 20–30 seconds. Relax.

Arm-across-chest stretch
Raise your right arm to shoulder level in front of you and bend the arm at the elbow, keeping the forearm parallel to the floor. Grasp the right elbow with your left hand and gently pull it across your chest so that you feel a stretch in the upper arm and shoulder on the right side. Hold for 20 seconds; relax both arms. Repeat to the other side. Repeat three times on each side.

Practice these imagery and posture exercises throughout the day. You might try to find a good trigger to help you remember, such as doing one or more of them when you get up from your desk, or right before scheduled breaks and lunch. Soon it will become a habit.

Most of us get back pain at some point in our lives. It may be due to a sports-related injury, an accident or a congenital condition such as scoliosis. But most of the time, upper or lower back pain develops during the course of day-to-day life. Repetitive activities at work or home, such as sitting at a computer, tablet or other handheld device, can produce tension and muscle tightness that result in a backache.

Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do to prevent this sort of problem. General physical fitness and a healthy weight are important. But one surprisingly simple strategy can go a long way: Paying attention to your posture.

Harvard Health Beat, October 2014

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