5 stretches for relieving ‘tech neck,’ according to physical therapists

Each stretch can be done right in your seat.
a person sitting at a computer stretches their arm behind their head
Stretch without leaving your desk. DepositPhotos

The world is still far off from flying cars and boots on Mars, but technology has come a long way in the past century. We’re more connected than ever, as Zoom calls and social media let you interact with people worldwide. And as the pandemic showed, many jobs do not need to be onsite, allowing people to work from the comfort of their own home. Though technology has its perks, the constant engagement of our electronic devices has done no favors for the human body. 

Tech neck is a growing phenomenon where people are excessively straining their neck muscles from leaning their head forward and looking down at their devices for long periods of time, says Devin Trachman, an orthopedic physical therapist and clinic director at Physical Therapy Central in Oklahoma. 

The average adult head weighs 11 to 13 pounds, and the more you tilt down and lean forward, the more pressure is placed on your neck and spine. A head turned down at a 45-degree angle—a common position for people looking at their phones—is going to place 49 pounds of force on your spine, Trachman told PopSci. Over time, this excess pressure can limit your mobility and cause neck spasms and headaches.

Physical therapists recommend regularly stretching the neck out for a few minutes to combat the uncomfortable side effects of staring at our glowing devices. Yoga poses like cobra, child’s pose, and cat-cow are great for relieving tension in the neck, shoulders, and spine, but if you don’t have the space to get on the floor, there are five stretches you can hold right at your desk or chair.

1. Stare up at the ceiling

The average person spends 3 hours and 15 minutes staring down at their phones. To ease the neck discomfort from staying in that position for so long, try looking up. 

Jenny Fritts, a physical therapist at Mercy Medical Center in Maryland, says moving your neck in different directions helps, especially when you spend some time stretching your neck in the opposite position. If you’ve had your head staring down at your phone or computer, this would mean staring up at the sky or ceiling. “I always tell people to act like there are cobwebs on the ceiling or in the corners of the room,” she advises.

2. Smell your armpit

Formally known as the levator scapula stretch, Trachman says this pose relieves tension from the base of your neck down to the top of the shoulder blades. Your left hand leans your head over to your left side. Tilting your head down and gently applying pressure as if trying to put your left ear on your left shoulder. The free right hand will reach over your back where you will apply pressure to try and grab your right shoulder blade. Hold the position for 30 seconds on each side. 

3. Give yourself a double chin

A person with good posture can stand up straight with a spine that is not flexing or arching, shoulders pulled back, and with their head directly above the spine. People with tech necks, however, have their heads out of alignment and in a forward position. 

Chin tucks are one way of realigning the head and spine, says Trachman. Sitting up nice and tall, look straight ahead and place a finger or two on your chin. Then you’ll slightly move your head back while tilting your chin down “as if you’re giving yourself a double chin,” Trachman describes. Hold the position for a few seconds and do it for at least three repetitions.

4. Shoulder rolls

If you have pain or stiffness in your shoulders, consider loosening them up with a few shoulder rolls. With your arms to your sides and back straight, rotate the shoulders forward as if you are making small circles. Creating a bigger circular motion will provide more engagement to the upper back muscles, rotator cuff, and deltoids. Trachman says the exercise can also help improve posture by opening your chest up and realigning the shoulders. 

Though forward shoulder rolls might not be the best option if you’re dealing with excessive tension in your neck and shoulders, warns Fritts. She explains that hiking your shoulders up can feed into the stress that’s sitting on your neck. Instead, she recommends reverse shoulder rolls. Reverse shoulder rolls involve moving your shoulder blades back and to the front in a circular motion. “Retracting your shoulder blades back, pinching them together, and pushing down can really help that area,” Fritts says.

5. Desk-friendly child’s pose

A traditional child’s pose gently stretches out your upper back muscles and relieves stress by activating the relaxation response in your parasympathetic nervous system. Trachman recommends a modified child’s pose you can do right at your desk if you’re not in a space to perform it on the floor.

Place your hands on the table, shoulder-distance apart. You’ll then lean forward while gently scooting your chair back until you feel a stretch in your outstretched arms. Trachman advises holding the pose for about 30 seconds.

How to stop tech neck from coming back

Performing the above stretches at least five times a week can significantly improve your tech neck and posture in as little as two to four weeks, Trachman says. Additionally, she says working simultaneously with a physical therapist can speed up the process. 

That being said, the best way to get rid of tech neck is to avoid it in the first place. Trachman and Fritts recommend people look at their devices, whether a phone or computer, at eye level instead of tilting down. If you are staring at a computer screen for long periods of time, Trachman says you’ll want to keep the monitor 20 to 30 inches away from you—an arm’s length worth of distance. Finally, scheduling breaks to get up and walk around can prevent your body from being hunched in one position for too long. Even a five-minute recess can do wonders for your posture.