Recent news reports about a 2018 study1 have made claims that younger people who are excessively looking down at phone and tablet screens may be causing their skulls to sprout “horns.” These reports have generated plenty of discussion on social media and at office water coolers, but the study does not have strong data to support the claims. Besides, the aforementioned “horns” are actually bone spurs on the external occipital protuberance at the base of the skull, which we all have to some degree.
Watch: Cervical Spine Anatomy Video
While bone spurs on the external occipital protuberance are unlikely to cause symptoms, poor posture is known to contribute to neck and back pain in many people. Whether you have text neck from spending hours looking down at a phone, or have forward head posture from too much time hunched over a computer, these poor habits are not good for your spine. To reduce the risk for developing neck or back pain from poor posture, consider these tips.
1. Remember to use good posture.
Some ideas to help maintain good posture throughout the day include:
- Keep your head in neutral position. When sitting or standing, keep your shoulders back and the ears directly over the shoulders. This neutral position keeps the head better balanced atop the spine with less stress on the muscles and joints.
- Consider your workstation setup. When sitting at a computer, your monitor should be at eye level, elbows at your sides and bent about 90° with the keyboard easily within reach, and both feet flat on the ground. Some people may need to make adjustments to their workstation, such as by using a different office chair or getting a monitor stand.
- Raise your phone closer to eye level. When reading or sending messages on a phone, more stress is placed on the spine if the neck is bent looking down at a table or your lap. If you keep your phone up closer to eye level, the neck doesn’t need to bend forward so much.
Breaking bad habits can be challenging at first. It might help to set automatic reminders throughout the day to check your posture.
2. Take breaks.
Our spines were meant to move. If you have a desk job or a project that requires computer work, try to take a break every hour for at least a few minutes. Get up and go for a short walk, or try some light stretches for the neck and back. Taking regular breaks from looking at a screen is also good for the eyes and may reduce eyestrain.
Some people may also benefit from an adjustable standing desk. Too much sitting or standing can be hard on the spine and body in general, but switching things up for part of the day can help some people. An adjustable standing desk is not for everyone, so try to test standing and working before buying one. Some people may also want to first try a portable desk riser, which tend to cost less.
3. Exercise regularly.
It is important to keep your neck and back strong and flexible to help reduce the risk for developing pain and stiffness. Staying active can keep the muscles in shape, such as by regularly hiking, playing sports, swimming, doing yardwork, and other physical activities.
Exercises and stretches that focus on the neck, chest, and core muscles can help the body hold healthy posture throughout the day. If you haven’t exercised in a while or are already dealing with neck or back pain, it can help to have a trained health professional—such as a physiatrist or physical therapist—design an exercise program to meet your individual goals. Also, if a particular exercise worsens your pain, stop it and check with your doctor.
In the meantime, it’s fine to continue using and benefiting from modern technology while remembering to use good posture, take breaks, and stay active.
- Shahar D, Sayers MGL. Prominent exostosis projecting from the occipital squama more substantial and prevalent in young adult than older age groups. Sci Rep. 2018; 8(1):3354. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-21625-1.