For years, Charles Youn, 29, suffered from upper-back pain and neck soreness that made him hunch his shoulders and caused him to wake up numerous times throughout every night. He was in pain and constantly fatigued, drinking too much coffee to combat the sluggishness.
“I learned to live with it,” says Youn, who works in development for leadership nonprofit Outward Bound and lives on the Upper East Side. “My upper back and neck would be so tight. My neck was always bent forward, and I just thought that’s how it was going to be.”
‘We’re seeing it in younger and younger children because they’re getting their phones at a younger age.’
This past fall, Youn consulted with chiropractor Dr. Christian Kang, who has a practice in the Flatiron District and explained he was holding his problem in the palms of his hands: his laptop and iPhone were causing his pain.
Youn suffers from “tech neck,” or forward head syndrome, a painful, increasingly common condition caused by slumping over devices for hours a day that leads the neck to lose its natural curve — and triggers a physiological imbalance in the upper body. Previously seen in middle-aged-or-older desk jockeys and dentists who hunch over patients, it’s now materializing in younger generations who grew up with smart phones, tablets and other personal devices.
“Now, 20-year-olds have the spine health of a 30- or 40-year-old. It’s an epidemic,” says Kang.
Dr. Brian Wallace, a chiropractor based in Bernardsville, NJ, says he’s witnessing the same thing at his practice. “We’re seeing it in younger and younger children because they’re getting their phones at a younger age,” he says. “It’s one of the most common things we see.” According to a 2016 study by the research firm Influence Central, the average age at which an American child gets their first smartphone is 10.3 years.
As the posture worsens, the upper back muscles stretch out, while the muscles in the front of the body become weaker and the neck creeps forward, which can make the head feel at least 10 pounds heavier than it is. Not only does it cause structural problems in the neck and back; Wallace says it can also spark breathing and panic issues.
“When you have that forward-rolled posture, it has a profound impact on the breathing. Children have become shallow breathers, which then affects anxiety levels because your nervous system can’t function properly,” says Wallace, adding that medical issues such as asthma and allergies can develop.
Dr. Vito Minervini, a chiropractor based in Rockaway, NJ, says young women are particularly susceptible to the condition because they have lower muscle density in their upper body area.
“It’s bad all around, but guys can take it more because they have more musculature,” says Minervini.
Sania Khiljee, a Houston-based entrepreneur and blogger, knows this all too well. The 27-year-old founder of Bumble Brain Box, a subscription box service focused on child development, saw her body simply give out as her business began to take off two years ago.
“I was literally looking down at my phone and laptop for hours every single day. Two of my discs got herniated and it pushed into nerves and then the muscles in my shoulders got really hard,” says Khiljee.
Khiljee’s doctors were explicit: Her tech overuse was fueling the frightening breakdown.
“It’s hard to explain, but my neck couldn’t support the weight of my head. I had no mobility.” She desperately sought out solutions, including forsaking a comfortable bed. “My bed was too soft, so I slept on the floor for months.”