General Practitioner (GP) Dr Kwong Seh Meng shares how long-term use of electronic devices could be causing aches and pains. 

As society becomes increasingly reliant on technology, more and more people are experiencing pain their necks and backs, mostly due to poor posture while using electronic devices.  

Tech neck syndrome (TNS), also known as text neck syndrome, is a modern health condition . In a survey conducted in Singapore involving more than 500 young adults aged 21 to 29, over 80% of the respondents reported spending three or more hours daily on mobile phones and tablets. Alarmingly, around 60% of these individuals experienced neck and back pain after device use, yet only 11% accurately identified TNS as the cause of their discomfort. 

Dr Kwong Seh Meng, General Practitioner, DR+ Medical & Paincare East Coast

Dr Kwong Seh Meng, General Practitioner, DR+ Medical & Paincare East Coast

Dr Kwong Seh Meng, General Practitioner, DR+ Medical & Paincare East Coast, shares with us the importance of ergonomic practices and lifestyle modifications in preventing and managing this worrying phenomenon. 

For Life (FL): What exactly is Tech Neck Syndrome?  

Dr Kwong: Tech Neck Syndrome (TNS) is a repetitive stress injury to the neck caused by holding the head in a forward and downward position for extended periods of time. This position, if for held too long, increases the weight of the head on the neck muscles by as much as six times, compared to the correct position/posture of the head and neck.Holding this posture for prolonged periods can cause the neck and shoulder muscles to become tense, leading to stiffness and pain.  

If not treated early or properly, it can lead to inflammation of the soft tissues of the neck, spine degeneration and change to the curvature of the spine.  

FL: What are some of the main causes of TNS?  

Dr Kwong: The main cause of TNS is poor posture. The forward head posture (FHP) and rounded shoulders have become the norm due to our overuse of electronic devices. Repetitive movements can also cause repetitive strain injuries in the neck and upper back muscles. This includes the constant bending of the neck forward to view electronic screens, typing on smartphones, or using a computer mouse for too long. Studies show that even a 30-degree downward tilt can exert 18kg of stress on the spine, and cause pain.

TNS can also be triggered by lifting weights improperly. When performing weight-lifting exercises, the neck provides structure and support for the body, coordinates movement and aids in posture control. As the neck is a delicate structure, it is susceptible to injury due to improper form while lifting, excessive weight, and repetitive movements with weights.

FL: What are some of the signs and symptoms of TNS?  

Dr Kwong: Some signs and symptoms of TNS are easy to distinguish, whereas others could be easily dismissed or missed entirely.  The most obvious symptom of TNS would be either intermittent neck pain, or persistent and ongoing pain. The pain may range from mild discomfort to severe, debilitating pain that hinders daily movement or activity. Pain or discomfort in the upper back, particularly between the shoulder blades, as well as shoulder pain caused by strain and tension in the shoulder muscles are also common. Other symptoms to look out for include tension headaches that originate from issues in the neck, a reduced range of motion as well as muscle stiffness and a worsening of posture of the individual.  

FL: How is TNS diagnosed, since the symptoms may be similar with other diseases? 

Dr Kwong: TNS is typically diagnosed following a thorough medical assessment, which includes taking the patient’s detailed medical history, physical examination, and evaluation of the patient’s symptoms. During the medical history, the healthcare provider will inquire about the patient’s occupation, the onset and severity of symptoms, and activities that may contribute or aggravate neck, shoulder, or upper back pain, including screen time habits.  

Following the medical history, a physical examination is conducted to assess the patient’s posture, neck and shoulder range of motion, and areas of tenderness or muscle tightness. Early recognition and diagnosis of TNS can lead to appropriate management and preventive measures to mitigate the impact of prolonged device use on posture and musculoskeletal health 

FL: What are the long-term consequences of neglecting TNS?  

Dr Kwong: It is never a good idea to neglect a problem in your body, especially if it causes you discomfort. Neglecting symptoms of TNS can lead to a range of long-term consequences, affecting both your physical and mental health.  Potential outcomes of untreated TNS include chronic pain in the neck and upper back, musculoskeletal disorders, nerve compression, reduced range of motion as well as degenerative changes.

Over time, untreated muscle imbalances, poor posture, and repetitive strain can lead to increased pain intensity and duration, which impact daily activities and quality of life. These conditions can cause structural changes and functional impairments, leading to long-term discomfort and disability.  Prolonged forward head posture and compression of nerves in the cervical spine can result in nerve compression syndromes such as pinched nerves. Symptoms may include radiating pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the arms or hands, which can significantly impact mobility.   

FL: How is TNS treated? Does treatment always involve surgery or are there non-surgical interventions available for patients?  

Dr Kwong: Non-surgical interventions for TNS focus on relieving symptoms, improving posture and addressing underlying muscle imbalances. There are many minimally invasive treatments, that have been shown to effectively help with pain management. Some of the latest therapies used to treat TNS target the muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints and nerves to break the pain cycle, reduce inflammation and improve healing. Specialized needles are used to reach the pain source without the need for open surgery or painkillers. Depending on how painful the condition is for the sufferer, different types of injections may be utilized to either remove the pain generator or stop the pain signals altogether.  

Surgery is rarely necessary. Surgery may help if a nerve is pinched and it is causing weakness or severe pain that will not subside with painkillers.  Treatments for TNS are usually designed to be performed alongside physical therapy or physiotherapy, which can help improve posture, strengthen, and stretch tight muscles as well as increase flexibility.  

FL: What are some tips and exercises that we, as daily users of technology, can follow to prevent TNS?  

Dr Kwong: The most important thing is to maintain good posture throughout the day. The correct posture when sitting or standing is for the head to be aligned above the shoulders, with the shoulders relaxed. Our head should not be tilted forward or backwards. We should avoid slouching or leaning forward while using electronic devices. Setting limits on device usage is a good way to limit unnecessary screen time, especially in children. Taking frequent breaks during prolonged device use, and incorporating stretching exercises that can help loosen up tight muscles and strengthen muscles, are important in preventing long-term musculoskeletal issues.  

Another way we can prevent TNS is to invest in an ergonomic set-up at our workspace, including an adjustable chair, ergonomic keyboard, and mouse to support proper posture and reduce strain on the neck and upper back. Using a chair with a headrest can aid in proper posture and help by holding the back of the head up when using the computer. This prevents strain on the neck. 

Exercises, such as jogging, brisk walks, swimming, or cycling at least 20 minutes up to three or four times a week can actually help keep the neck and back strong. These exercises increase respiratory and heart rates, work up a sweat, and release built-up tension in the neck. Stretching before and after your exercise can also help immensely 

Featured photo by Dreamstime.
Dr Kwong Seh Meng photo courtesy of Dr Kwong Seh Meng.