'Laptop posture' creating a literal pain in the neck, spine specialists say

Spine specialists are seeing the signs of a nation glued to laptops, electronic notebooks, and smartphones. As a result of hours spent with the head down and the neck bent in an unnatural position, adults, adolescents and even children are complaining of sore necks. The long-term consequences, say specialists at Mayfield Brain & Spine, could be arthritis and damaged joints.

"We don't have many statistics about it, but this is something I'm seeing in my practice," says William Tobler, MD, a Mayfield spine specialist. "More and more people are complaining that they have soreness in their neck. And the problem is not short-term. People are going to be sitting at computers their entire career."

Having the head tilted down for long periods -- call it laptop posture or tech neck -- is not a natural posture, Dr. Tobler says. "It overstresses your extensor muscles and leads to fatigue. The extensor and flexor muscles are supposed to live in balance. When that balance is compromised, it strains the muscles and the vertebral discs."

Sideview: Illustration of human skeleton, showing spinal curvesMichael Kachmann, MD, another Mayfield spine specialist, points out that the human species has a normal curvature of the spine. This curavature, which evolved in our bipedal ancestors some 2.5 million years ago, absorbs the shock of footsteps and enables us to walk upright. At the neck, or cervical level, the normal, healthy spine arches slightly inward toward the jaw in a curvature called lordosis.

"When you lean forward, you are putting your neck in a kyphosis, a position that is the opposite of lordosis," Dr. Kachmann says. "Having the neck in this flexed position means you are positioning your cervical joints where they don't want to be. It's like asking your knee to stay in a hyperflexed position for a long time. It causes undue stress and can cause arthritis in the joints over time."

Both Drs. Tobler and Kachmann have seen the result of "laptop posture" in their own children. Dr. Tobler's adult daughter experienced neck pain from long hours at the computer at work, while Dr. Kachmann's young son has complained of neck pain after a few hours of intense Saturday morning video gaming. "I tell him constantly to get that notebook up closer to eye level, but it's hard with a hand-held device," Dr. Kachmann says.

Both physicians stress the importance of ergonomics, which matches equipment in the workplace to the needs of the worker. Ideally, the top of a computer screen should be at eye level. That can be accomplished by raising the height of a desk. Dr. Tobler's daughter, who was helped by physical therapy, secured a standing desk for her workstation.

Drs. Tobler and Kachmann agree that the problem of neck posture will become more apparent to doctors and other healthcare professionals as people age. "There is going to be recognition that this is an emerging problem," Dr. Tobler says. "It's going to be an epidemic."

Mayfield Brain & Spine is the full-service patient care provider of the Mayfield Clinic, one of the nation's leading physician organizations for neurosurgical treatment, education, and research. With more than 20 specialists in neurosurgery, interventional neuroradiology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and pain management, Mayfield Brain & Spine treats 25,000 patients from 35 states and 13 countries in a typical year. Mayfield physicians specialize in the treatment of back and neck pain, sciatica, Parkinson's disease, essential tremor, NPH, epilepsy, brain and spinal tumors, stroke, moyamoya, brain aneurysms, Chiari malformation, scoliosis, kyphosis, facial pain, facial twitch, trauma, concussion, spinal cord injury, and carpal tunnel. As leading innovators in their field, Mayfield physicians have pioneered surgical procedures and instrumentation that have revolutionized the medical art of neurosurgery for spinal diseases and disorders, brain tumors, and neurovascular diseases and disorders.