Heads Up: Is Your Expensive New Phone a Pain in the Neck?

We hear a lot about forward head posture these days. We’re all bending forward and hunched over our desks as we type, and when we’re away from our desks we spend much of our time looking down at the phones in our hands. And we all have headaches. That’s just the way the modern world works.

It makes sense that this hunched posture would be associated with aches and pains. Think of what it’s like when you hold a bowling ball next to your chest versus what it’s like to hold that ball out in front of you with your arms extended. It’s a whole lot easier to keep things close. Now imagine that your arms are your neck, and that bowling ball is your head. It’s enough to make you want to stand up straight.

Holding yourself for long periods of time with your head jutted forward, as we tend to do now that we’re so bonded to our smartphones and computers, causes a great deal of strain on the neck and upper back, overworking the muscles and leading to fatigue and tightness.

This forward head posture is said to be responsible for a range of conditions, including chronic neck and shoulder aches and pains, numbness in the hands and arms, improper breathing, poor blood circulation, headaches, stress, and depression.

Rigorous scientific studies examining these links, however, are uncommon and inconclusive:

  • Forward head posture has historically been linked with cervical dysfunction (Janda 1994). Currently, the literature associating forward head posture and cervical spine pain is not strong (Dalton & Coutts 1994; Griegel-Morris et al 1992; Haughie et al 1995; Johnson 1998; Treleaven et al 1994; Watson & Trott 1993). … Deviations may be normal variations. Postural differences may reflect structural, muscle, joint, and neural system sensitivity, be reactive to pain states, or may reflect psychological factors. [link]
  • The forward head posture is believed to be a common poor postural position associated with cervicogenic headache. However studies in this area are divided in their findings and have not produced convincing evidence for a strong association between static measures of the forward head postural position and neck pain or neck pain and headache (Dumas et al 2001, Griegel-Morris et al 1992, Grimmer 1997, Lee et al 2003, Treleaven et al 1994, Watson & Trott 1993). [link]
  • A study investigating head and neck posture in subjects with Temporomandibular Disorder (TMD) found that subjects with TMD had neither statistically nor clinically significant differences in most of the head and cervical posture variables when compared with pain-free subjects. According to the results of this study along with a systematic review, there is a lack of a scientific validation of a correlation between postural alteration and TMD. [link]

Still, we’ve got these headaches. And it’s hard to imagine that our hours scrunched up and staring at our screens aren’t related.

Where’s Your Head At?

You can give yourself a simple test for forward head posture. Start with your back against a wall and your feet hip-width apart. Your heels, your buttocks, and your shoulder blades (not necessarily the top of your shoulders) should be touching the wall. Now while standing in this position as naturally as possible, ask yourself: where is your head? If the back of your head is not also touching the wall, then you’re standing with forward head posture—and you may want to do some work to reorient yourself.

It’ll take more than just remembering to stand upright, though, especially if you’ve been living with a forward head for any considerable length of time. You’ll first want to adjust your environment so that your daily activities aren’t leading you into this position. Pay attention to the ergonomics of your workstation: a good chair, properly oriented mouse, keyboard, and monitor, and periodic breaks are key to getting through your day. You might even consider your sleeping habits and invest in a supportive neck pillow for bedtime. When it comes to your mobile phone, try to be aware of how often and how you’re using it. Spending hours a day staring down at it isn’t good for anything. Limit the amount of time you spend looking at the screen, and hold it high when possible so you’re not bending to its will. Your neck will thank you.

As for correcting what seems to be a locked-in forward head posture, there are a number of exercises and stretches you can do to strengthen and lengthen the muscles in your neck. But if you’re experiencing pain that you think might be related to a forward head, your best bet is probably to make an appointment with your family doctor or a physical therapist. They’ll be able to rule out other possible sources of your pain, and work with you on exercises and a treatment plan that are customized to your own particular circumstances.