I recently wrote about how my oldest son learned how to ride a bike. His excitement got me to buy a used one, mostly because running after him down the street wasn’t going to be a solid long-range plan. Now, Milo and I get to explore on two wheels. We discovered a pond with ducks not far from the house and we’ve met a lot more people in the neighborhood, mostly ones who own dogs.
It’s also been a great way to show him what I want him to do on the bike — stay to the side of the road, wait until cars stop before you cross, and look behind you to see …
Maybe not that one. I once had that easy range of motion, but it’s gone, and I blame Milo and his younger brother Levi. I love them, but they’ve destroyed my neck. They’ve also destroyed my lower back, sleep rhythms, and knowledge of current events. But right now, it’s about the neck, and they’re not going to smile their way out of it. For six years, I’ve been constantly looking down, to read to them, to answer their questions, to hold them until I fall asleep in chairs with them.
Again, all their fault. Or maybe not completely.
Vijay Dayanani is a physical therapist at Harvard Medical School-affiliated Spaulding Outpatient Center and says the main culprit is technology. Laptops, iPads, and cell phones have created a looking-down culture, bringing the neck out of its ideal neutral position and perpetually stressing the muscles to where they eventually lock up. Parenting just compounds the problem by offering no break from the bad mechanics. More than that, Dayanani predicts that he’ll be treating a lot more neck arthritis in the future. Same goes for the fingers, particularly thumbs, from the incessant texting.
So what’s needed is some adapting, wherever it can be found. Here’s how, he says:
Awareness. It’s basic, but it’s easy to not think about how you’re holding your body. With parenting, it’s even easier to forget to simply look up every once in a while. Ultimately, the more that can be done at eye level, the better. Having any kind of screen at a comfortable height will help; adjusting your work computer will help even more. When you’re standing, check in to where your pelvis is. You want to make sure to slightly rotate it forward, which will maintain the curve in your lower spine and automatically bring up the top of your body.
Give your eyes a target. Put any picture that you love on the wall opposite your desk. It might be a little gimmicky, but anything that will cause you to look straight ahead for a few seconds will give the neck muscles a chance to rest and unwind. Along with that …
Keep a bottle of water on your desk. And drink it. It’s good to get up and move around once every hour. You could set a reminder on your phone, but you also have to remember to do that. Even if you did, deadlines can cause tunnel vision, but having to go to the bathroom is a hard one to ignore.
Check your pillow support. It should fill the space from your shoulder to your ear to keep your neck properly aligned. A simple test: while lying on your side, open your eyes. You should be looking straight ahead and your head should be level.
Work your mid-back. They’re key postural muscles. Do lat pulldowns or seated rows — a pull versus a push exercise will make it less likely to round your back.
Use hot and cold. Ice and heat are classics for a reason: they help. For anything acute and severe, ice every hour for 10 minutes for up to 72 hours. For anything else, it’s whichever temperature you prefer, once in the morning, at noon, and at night for 15 minutes each time.