May 29th 2016
Sarah Vine: Back pain - the tech neck symptom that's hard work to cure
April 12th 2015
Tech neck not only cause wrinkles but back pain and bad posture too. Sarah Vine is on a mission to ease hers
As anyone who has ever suffered from a bad back knows, there’s nothing quite like it. The constant, nagging, low-level pain. The way even the most mundane tasks suddenly seem exhausting, from pulling on your socks to cooking supper. The way everyone and everything seems to irritate you. And the general, depressing feeling that you’re slowly falling apart.
Lower back pain is the most common; increasingly, however, neck, shoulder and mid-back pain are becoming a real issue. The culprit: technology. If ‘tech neck’ hasn’t yet made it into the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s only a matter of time.
Dominic Cheetham, who runs the excellent and thriving Sloane Square Chiropractors, is obsessed with tech neck. Every time I walk into his clinic with my shoulders up around my ears, he gives me a big long lecture about it, before straightening me out and sending me on my way a good half inch taller than I was when I walked in.
He reckons all his clients have it in some shape or form - and it’s especially worrying in youngsters who, he says, are presenting with the kind of spinal distortion he only ever used to see in much older people. He wants us all to work standing up or, better still, standing up at a sloped lectern, like mediaeval scribes.
Meantime, he’s devised a special pillow to help undo the evils of technology while we slumber, expertly designed using the latest technology to provide the best possible rest for stressed necks.
Adept as people like Dominic may be at fixing the damage we inflict upon our poor skeletons, the basic problem remains: humans weren’t designed to walk around the place with our chins on our chests staring at very small screens.
The forward/downward motion of the head shifts the considerable weight of the skull forward so that the rest of the body is forced to compensate, pushing the upper body back and the hips forward.
Since the average head weighs around 5kg, this can mean up to an extra 20 kg of strain. For the human body, this is a seismic shift.
In this awkward new position the chest muscles contract and the torso collapses in on itself. This places untold strain on the muscles of the head and neck and, over time, shortens and weakens the chest muscles and ligaments.
It also puts a huge amount of extra strain on the mid- and lower-back areas. Tension, inflammation naturally follow.
Aesthetically, it’s a nightmare too. As well as unsightly horizontal neck creases, you basically turn into a hunchback. That horrible buffalo hump bit of fat and flesh at the top of the spine becomes more pronounced.
Having spent a good 20 years of my professional life hunched over various electronic devices, I am an expert in the trials and tribulations of trying to fix this unhappy situation. Regular visits to Dominic are key; but unless I support his work with my own exercise, the benefits quickly dissipate.
Regular reformer Pilates - that is to say Pilates practised on machines, not mat, is the best place to start, especially if you’ve never done much before. I wouldn’t recommend yoga because you’ll be using your own body as counterbalance, and unless you are either very experienced or have one-to-one teaching, you risk making matters worse.
David Higgins, the man who co-founded Ten Pilates, was the person who resolved my first bout of back pain. I could barely walk when I took my first class with him - over 10 years ago now. Then the problem was not so much neck and shoulder pain as lower back, brought on by the effects of pregnancy and a car-crash labour.
It was the strengthening of the abdominal muscles and the slow, gradual re-alignment of my hips that fixed me then - plus David’s brilliant understanding of how the human body moves - or doesn’t. It only took about 15 sessions to address the acute symptoms, and then it was just a question of maintenance. Higgins has since moved on from Ten, but they have some excellent new trainers, in particular Luke Meesman.
My lower back has never troubled me since; but I do suffer terribly from mid-back pain, as well as stiff shoulders and neck tension: in other words, classic tech-neck. If I’m on holiday, and away from the phone and the laptop for a few days, it all just melts away. But at times of high stress or during especially intense work periods it becomes unbearable.
At its best, it’s a nagging tightness in the shoulders and a dull ache behind the ears; at worst, sharp, throbbing tension headaches and extreme irritability.
But it wasn’t until I ended up with a sore toe that I stumbled across my latest back saviour. The toe led me to seek help from Margaret Dabbs’ foot clinic in New Cavendish Street, W1, where Helen, one of her excellent podiatrists, sorted me out with a medical pedicure and some antibiotic cream. And that in turn led me to the Back Shop, just opposite at No 14.
I wandered in with the vague intention of replacing my distinctly un-ergonomic writing chair with something back-friendly - and emerged bearing an extraordinary contraption called The Mobiliser.
They have one in store that you can try. Which I did. Reader, I have never experienced such exquisite agony. And relief. It was as though each one of my vertebrae were being individually massaged, and my whole spine painstakingly and forensically re-aligned. Even just thinking about it makes me want to rush upstairs and have a go on it.
The bad news is it’s wildly expensive: £3,000. The good news is, you can hire it for around £40 a week, which given the benefits is, I can assure you, a bargain. I took mine for four months and am (sob) due to return it this week.
If my experience is anything to go by, you will find it transforms your back pain. At first I used it daily (sometimes twice daily, which you’re not supposed to do, but I couldn’t resist). Now I need it maybe once a week, sometimes less, depending on workload.
It hasn’t cured my back completely, and I still need the regular ministrations of Mr Cheetham, plus Pilates, to keep me on the straight and narrow. But there is no silver bullet when it comes to back pain: you just have to take a holistic approach.