Younger patients' neck pain rises; smartphone overuse a key factor for doctors

SUNDAY, APRIL 21, 2024

Construction coordinator Jonathan Wu found himself often glued to his mobile devices during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, and because he was working from home, his lifestyle was sedentary.

At the time, he was no longer visiting project sites, and he attended meetings online using his smartphone or computer. 

Said Wu, 34: “I developed a bad habit where I cradled my phone on one side of my neck while working, causing my neck to tilt at an odd angle for prolonged periods.” 

Before he knew it, Wu was experiencing severe neck pain and headaches, which made it difficult for him to sleep or drive.

He said: “I was constantly in pain, and that caused me a lot of stress to the point that I told my boss I could no longer work.”

Wu is among the many patients with neck pain and strain that doctors are seeing now and who, doctors say, are younger than those who suffered from such ailments in the past. 

Many of them suffer from a condition called tech neck syndrome – a repetitive stress injury caused by holding the head in a forward and downward position for long periods.

Tech neck is also linked to symptoms like muscle stiffness and persistent neck pain – a result of the prolonged use of electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers.

When Wu visited a doctor in 2022, he was told that he likely had tech neck and fibromyalgia, a condition that can lead to lasting muscle pain and fatigue.

He underwent platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy, which aims to reduce inflammation and aid healing. PRP involves extracting plasma from a patient’s blood to inject into the injured areas. Mr Wu received injections at the back of his neck, shoulders and upper back.

He was also prescribed medication such as nerve stabilisers and muscle relaxants, which he is still taking today. 

Wu no longer suffers from neck pain and has resumed work. He regularly does gentle stretching exercises and practises better posture, he said. 

“This experience opened my eyes to the fact that stress and poor posture can play a big role in neck and back pain and cause serious issues if untreated,” he added.

Younger patients\' neck pain rises; smartphone overuse a key factor for doctors

Dr Kwong Seh Meng, medical director of DR+ Medical & Paincare East Coast in Katong, said the demographic of patients with tech neck has shifted away from those in their 40s since the pandemic in 2020.

Now, it is more common to see more people in younger age groups, such as those in their mid to late 20s, having tech neck symptoms, he added, and it is usually due to bad posture. 

Orthopaedic surgeon Razmi Rahmat at Parkway East Hospital said the bulk of his patients who complained of neck pain were in their 50s when he started work as a spine surgeon in 2002.

Now, his patients are “getting younger and younger”.


Dr Razmi said: “I am even seeing teenagers and patients in their early 20s who have started work and rely heavily on the use of laptops and smartphones regularly.”

He estimated that about 80 per cent of his tech neck patients would fall into the younger age group. 

Dr Thor Timothy A. Chutatape, a medical consultant at Novena Pain Management Centre, said young people are more susceptible to tech neck as they use mobile devices more because of social media usage.

He said: “Digital mobile gaming is also incredibly addictive and intense. The typical gamer stays in the same position for long periods without stretching, completely focused and hunched over his device.”

If untreated, the neck injury may negatively affect one’s quality of life, said Sengkang Community Hospital senior physiotherapist Beh Jyh Yun.

“The sustained poor body posture can lead to a forward head posture with rounded shoulders and a kyphotic back associated with tight hamstrings and gluteal muscles,” she said.

A kyphotic back refers to one that has an excessive forward curvature.

The lack of early intervention might also result in the inflammation of soft tissues in the neck, spine degeneration, and chronic issues such as pinched nerves and herniated discs, said Dr Kwong.

Both non-invasive and surgical options are available treatments for tech neck.

Injections, to administer pain medicine like anti-inflammatory agents and muscle relaxants, may be given to alleviate inflammation in the affected areas, said Dr Kwong.

Non-surgical options like physiotherapy and traditional Chinese medicine treatments, including acupuncture, are also available, said Dr Thor.

Dr Kwong said painkillers are “merely Band-Aid solutions that do not address the underlying cause of pain or contribute to healing damaged tissues”. 

For more serious cases, surgical procedures can remove the disc in the neck or the use of artificial disc implants may be advised, said Dr Razmi.

But prevention is better than cure, and doctors said lifestyle habits like reducing time spent on mobile phones and regular exercise can help prevent muscle stiffness. 

Dr Thor said the best way to overcome the “impending epidemic” of neck problems is for young people to reduce their usage of electronic devices.

He said: “They need to be still, to breathe, and to just observe and enjoy the world and the people around them again, rather than find an escape in the digital dystopia.”

Tips to prevent tech neck:

Avoid slouching or leaning forward while using electronic devices.

Elevate devices to eye level to reduce the need to bend your neck forward. Invest in accessories such as a laptop stand, an adjustable chair or an ergonomic keyboard to support proper posture.

Take frequent breaks and move away from your digital devices. You should take a break lasting at least 10 minutes for every hour of sitting. 

Perform simple neck and back stretches such as chin tucks and neck rotations to ensure your muscles are not tightening up. 

Exercise regularly, for at least 20 minutes three to four times a week. This helps to keep your neck and back healthier and stronger.

Kolette Lim

The Straits Times

Asia News Network