Like a lot of people, I spend much of my workday staring at various screens — and, like a lot of people, I have the back and neck issues to prove it. Hunching and its associated symptoms are a hallmark of the digital age. Though I have a makeshift ergonomic setup in my home office, I often catch myself with my chin jutting forward as I lean toward my laptop — despite the fact that I’m a regular Pilates student and former yoga teacher.
Clearly, my athletic training hasn’t done enough to reinforce good habits. So, searching for a path to better posture, I spoke with two doctors about the problem and tried a few gadgets that promised to help me straighten things out.
“We get into this stooped posture to get our faces close to the screen, which puts a lot of unnatural stress on the cervical spine,” says Kaliq Chang, a double board-certified physician in interventional pain management and anesthesiology with Atlantic Spine Center in West Orange, New Jersey. Ideally, when you’re sitting at your desk in front of a computer monitor, “You’re meant to have the weight of your head situated over your neck in a manner that forces your chest out and your shoulders back, which requires having a monitor close to eye level,” Chang says.
When you hunch forward, whether at your desk or looking at your phone on the couch, the muscles in your neck and back extend while the ones in the front contract; over time, this can create an imbalance where they pull on one another unevenly. The effect would be minimal if we were only putting our necks and backs in awkward positions for minutes at a time, but people often spend hours out of whack.
“That’s where the problem lies,” says Charla Fischer, an orthopedic surgeon at New York University’s Langone Spine Center. When muscles are stretched in uncomfortable ways for prolonged periods of time, that can lead to injury involving microtears and swelling. “All muscles do is contract and relax. When they’re injured, all they do is contract — and that’s where we get spasms and pain.”
Over the past several years, Fischer says she has seen a rise in young people — particularly recent college graduates new to the workforce — experiencing this exact scenario. For those working long hours in open offices at laptops instead of at monitors with ergonomic setups, the transition to so much screen time creates wear and tear. Poor posture also can evolve into a permanent stoop, Chang says, as the muscles and ligaments grow accustomed to the position and ultimately make it more difficult for the spine to straighten appropriately; other changes, such as bone spurs and even the reshaping of vertebrae, are also possible.
Like Fischer, Chang says his patients get younger every year. “More recently, I’ve had teenagers coming in, with a lot of what we call soft tissue injuries and problems, [such as] chronic pain in their neck, shoulders and mid-back.” He attributes some of these issues to a combination of phone and laptop usage — a recipe for poor ergonomics and compromised posture. A 2013 National Institutes of Health study showed a high prevalence of musculoskeletal pain among undergraduate laptop users.
A burst of braces
The result of all this time spent peering at screens, and the subsequent aches and pains, has led to a rise in products designed to improve posture, from sleek tech devices to body braces. Though some research has been done on the usage of tech wearables to monitor posture, the long-term results remain murky, and another NIH study that looked at the efficacy of posture-correcting braces suggests that their greatest benefit could be the increased self-awareness that comes from wearing one. “The latest theories of the utility of a back brace is that it is effective in reminding the patient that they should maintain proper posture and lifting technique, especially in those times they are most active,” Chang says.
Over the course of a month, I tested three devices, two of which were harnesses. The slightly bulky Marakym Posture Corrector ($20 at amazon.com) fits like a backpack without the pack: Adjustable padded straps loop over your shoulders and pull your body into better alignment. Designed to “gently retrain your musculature so that you can effortlessly maintain an upright position over time,” the Marakym is meant to be worn for up to 30 minutes per day.
The Berlin & Daughter Posture Corrector ($29.60 at berlinanddaughter.com), which I found more straightforward, is also a harness, but the two padded straps are fixed in length while a waist strap with Velcro connects at the front, allowing wearers to easily adjust the pull on their shoulders easily. It’s recommended for use for 20 minutes per day, “preferably when standing,” reads the packaging. Mild discomfort is “your body adjusting.”
Both harness-style devices felt supportive, and I didn’t personally experience any pain-related side effects. Though I don’t think they did much to correct my posture, knowing that I was wearing one was a material reminder to sit up straight in the first place for the prescribed period of wear. This didn’t surprise the doctors I spoke with.
“Any sort of brace can be a good reminder. But I don’t typically recommend it for more than a few hours per day,” Chang says. “You don’t want to weaken the muscles by relying too much on a brace.”
Fischer agrees. “In general, I don’t like anything that does the work for you,” she says. “I want your muscles actively working all day long. [The aim] is to train yourself to sit, stand and walk in a good position.”
I got more of that with the third device I tried, the Upright Go 2 ($100 at store.uprightpose.com). A “personal posture trainer,” it’s a wearable in the high-tech sense: You download the Upright app and then sync it to a small plastic gadget that connects to a smartphone through Bluetooth. It’s easy to put on: You stick in the center of your back, between your shoulders — I wore mine just below the top knob of my spine — and it monitors your posture. Lean too far forward, and Upright begins to intermittently buzz. It’s mildly annoying, and that’s the point. Over time, the goal is to train yourself to maintain proper posture without the help of an external aid. It’s all about building strength, stamina and good form.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need gadgets to do that. Fischer recommends performing “reverse” stretches in the morning and evening — backward bending, for example — to counterbalance leaning forward throughout the day. “We talk about [body] symmetry, but we don’t think about it with our neck and lower back.” Regular neck stretching, mobility exercises and getting up from your desk once an hour to walk around and loosen up are also recommended — as are core workouts, such as Pilates, yoga or barre classes that help strengthen the muscles that help to maintain good posture.
You might even consider a few sessions with a physical therapist. If any discomfort is coupled with shooting pain in the arms or legs, however, Fischer and Chang recommend making an appointment with a doctor. “If someone is Googling [posture] devices because they are in a lot of pain, it’s best to just go see the doc.”
Before you do all that, you might want to look at your habits and make some behavioral changes. Research shows adjusting your computer screen height to eye level, keeping your keyboard and mouse in line with your elbows, and sitting with your feet on the floor make a difference, as can a pillow or pad supporting your lumbar spine. If you’re someone who routinely works from the couch, it might be time to consider moving to the kitchen table or an at-home desk setup: According to Chang, over time, this position can potentially lead the lower half of the spine to sink down under the pelvis, resulting in weakening and disk degeneration. The long-term repercussions include chronic muscle strain and chronic neck and back pain.
Wherever you work, taking regular breaks from sitting to walk around and stretch is crucial. If you can’t remember, Fischer recommends setting a timer on your phone reminding you to change positions every hour, ideally. “There is no scientific evidence on how frequently one should change positions. We know that sitting all day or standing all day is not good for you,” she says. “The idea is to create a habit you can live with.”
Though I could have worked on my posture gadget-free, the Upright’s annoying buzz was the tap on the shoulder I needed. Because the app tracks your slumping statistics over time, I can tell that I’ve made some progress; seeing that success quantified has the overall effect of making me stand a little taller — and sit up a little straighter.