Do you find yourself constantly trying to rub out the ache in your neck? Do you get headaches from prolonged computer use? Have co-workers suggested you look troll-like when you are sitting at your desk? Well, if you answered yes to any of these questions, then you might have a case of what I call “computer neck.” In this 3rd article of our series dedicated to computer user health, we want to identify the causes, talk about the mechanisms, and give you the solutions so you can take computer neck off your list of worries.
Quite simply, computer neck is caused by sitting with poor posture for prolonged periods in front of a computer. What is a little more complex is how poor posture leads to neck pain. This can happen in a variety of ways, a couple of which should be pointed out.
Throughout the body, poor postures cause stress- stress on joints, stress on muscles, stress on organs, and so on. That is essentially the definition of poor posture- body positions that cause undue stress. The neck is an area that is particularly susceptible to postural stress, in large part, because of the weight of our head.
When our neck and head are in a neutral upright position, very little muscular effort is required to hold up our head. If we leave neutral, however, and lean our head forward, then muscular effort soars in an exponential fashion. The muscles in the back of the neck must be constantly active when we lean our head forward, otherwise, our head would fall to our chest. This constant engagement of the posterior neck muscles leads to an overuse syndrome which results in, you guessed it, muscular irritation and pain.
So, a large part of what causes the neck pain of computer neck is chronic muscular overuse due to forward head position (FHP). Over time, FHP can also lead to a straightening of the cervical spine, wherein the normal forward curve of the neck is lost. Nearly every cervical x-ray I see of career computer users demonstrates this maladaptation. The concern with the loss of cervical curve has to do with changing the distribution of load in the spine. In a straight cervical spine, structures become load-bearing that were not designed to do so. Improper load bearing can lead to difficulties with movement and degenerative changes. For these reasons and more, chronic FHP is to be avoided.
So, how does all this information help the computer user in the trenches? I’m glad you asked because that begs the very important question “why do computer users lean their heads forward?” Is it fatigue? Well, that can play a part, but it is actually less fatiguing to keep the head in neutral. What about bad chairs? Very good, chairs with poor lumbar support often contribute to FHP if we allow ourselves to slouch in them. Bad seating and fatigue certainly do not help posture, however, neither are they the biggest causative factors for FHP in computer users. That title has everything to do with monitor height- the single most influential factor affecting computer user head position.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: when you are seated at your workstation with your head/neck in a neutral upright position, a line drawn straight out from your nose should intersect with the middle of your monitor. Very few people have their monitor set up to this height. If the monitor height is lower than this, then it necessarily forces the user to lean their head forward to see the monitor.
If your monitor is too low, I guarantee you will be stressing your posterior neck muscles and computer neck will likely be in your future. So, don’t do it- raise your monitor up to an ideal height today.