ByBecca Bull, MS, EAMPwoman holding her head in Seattle WA

By now almost everyone is familiar with “tech neck” — or at least the symptoms if not the phrase itself. This term refers to the chronically tight, sometimes painful neck, upper back and shoulder muscles and joints that result from hours spent looking down at our phones and computers. Even more time spent on devices combined with poor ergonomic WFH set-ups took the problem from bad to worse over the course of the pandemic.

Computers and phones are an unavoidable part of life, however, so don’t feel guilty if you find yourself in this position — you’re in good company. Nearly everyone who comes through the doors of Glow has some variation of Tech Neck. But that doesn’t mean you should accept the discomfort and potential long-term health effects as inevitable. Make a resolution to undertake a few key practices, starting with regular acupuncture care.

First, know that symptoms can range from perennially tight neck, shoulder and upper back muscles to numbness in the arms or hands, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain in the jaw, and chronic headaches. Neck muscles lengthen and chest muscles shorten, leading to a more hunched posture even when not looking down at a screen. Some people, especially those in their forties and up, can develop a curvature of the spine near the base of the neck, and left untreated, could get arthritis or disc injuries down the road.

Acupuncture can help decrease pain, release tight muscles, improve range of motion and reduce inflammation, with the only side effect being relaxation. It’s safe for all ages — looking at you, teens — and in pregnancy, too.

A large meta-analysis published in 2018 examined the effect of acupuncture on nonspecific musculoskeletal pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache, and/or shoulder pain, ultimately including data from 20,827 patients from 39 trials. The study concluded that “acupuncture was superior to sham as well as no acupuncture control for each pain condition,” with additional “clear evidence that the effects of acupuncture persist over time with only a small decrease, approximately 15%, in treatment effect at 1 year.”

A 2021 study divided a group of people suffering from chronic neck pain into three groups that either received acupuncture, joint mobilization (i.e. manual therapy performed by a physical therapist), or no intervention. At eight weeks, “both intervention groups showed statistically significant differences compared to the control group…[while the] acupuncture group showed a statistically significant improvement compared to the joint mobilization team.”

A third study examined the effects of acupuncture on a group of women with chronic neck pain and TMJ disorder. This study measured outcomes using electromyographic activity, which uses electrodes to sense muscle response or electrical activity in response to a nerve’s stimulation of the muscle. After 10 sessions, acupuncture was found to improve elevation of shoulder muscles (specifically the trapezius) and rotation of neck muscles (the sternocleidomastoid).

A typical acupuncture treatment will likely include both local “trigger” points to release tight muscles as well as distal points chosen according to the principles of Chinese medicine. It shouldn’t be painful, and most patients deeply relax. For acute cases, we recommended two to three treatments a week with weekly or bi-weekly maintenance visits to follow. If your insurance allows for acupuncture, this condition (“cervicalgia”) will be covered. Your acupuncturist may also add cupping, gua sha or tuina (Chinese medical massage), apply pain-relieving topical liniments, use directed infrared heat therapy, apply gentle electrical stimulation and suggest stretching, qi gong or tai chi movements to do at home. For more persistent cases, you can consider incorporating cold laser treatments.

To create long-term change, you must also work on your posture and tech habits, including putting devices at eye level and regularly taking breaks for stretching and movement while working at a computer or looking at a phone. When combined with acupuncture, this will lead to a far more comfortable new year.