Do You Have Painful ‘Tech Neck?’ This Expert-Approved Gadget Might Help

I share WSJ articles that I find interesting.

I read the WSJ every day. You can subscribe to the WSJ here.

I post and share some of the more interesting articles from the WSJ.

Hunching over your laptop and phone isn’t doing you any favors. In search of relief, our writer tried a promising solution.

By Hannah Singleton / Photographs F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

THE OTHER WEEK, I was dealing, again, with a nagging, relentless pain in the neck—the physical kind. No matter how much I stretched, it persisted. The culprit, it turns out, is my terrible posture. I spend hours a day hunched over my phone and laptop, my spine way out of its neutral alignment.

“When you start bringing your head forward, the posterior muscles are elongated and have to work [harder] to hold up the weight of [your] head,” said Karen Westervelt, physical therapist and professor of integrative health at the University of Vermont in Burlington. The issue is so common, that researchers like her dub it “tech neck.”

Ibuprofen failed to ease my discomfort, and wielding a massage gun as I rushed to meet deadlines proved too cumbersome. The pain made focusing harder and I wondered how long I’d be stuck in this cycle. Tech neck can lead to serious problems, according to Dr. Vivek Babaria, an interventional spine and sports medicine physician at DISC Sports and Spine Center in Newport Beach, Calif. He said he’s seeing more young patients develop arthritis as a result of poor posture.

In a last-ditch effort, I reached for a tool an athletic trainer friend had recommended for exercise recovery: the Therabody PowerDot 2.0 ($199), a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit you control with a mobile app. It has a pain relief program I’d never tried. Wires connect the rechargeable Bluetooth-compatible unit to adhesive pads you attach directly to your skin. Once they are in place, the pads pulse with subtle electric currents, designed to distract your brain from its pain signals, as Babaria later explained, and trigger an endorphin release.

I hooked up the wires to the sticky pads and positioned them on my neck and between my shoulder blades, mimicking the setup the app displayed. Over the next 20 minutes, my skin tingled and my muscles twitched. As I gradually turned up the intensity, my pain subsided.

The PowerDot’s app provides clear instructions and visual guides so I’m never left guessing if I’m using it correctly. You can also switch modes: Looking for period pain relief? Workout recovery? Other programs promise to help with those concerns. At $200, it seems a worthwhile investment (and is even covered by some health savings accounts).

Given that this type of device isn’t new—the first models emerged in the ’70s—you can also find much cheaper models online. Most are bulkier than the PowerDot, read more explicitly like a medical device, and are harder to set up and control. (After a spin with one, you’ll miss the PowerDot app.)

Unfortunately, a TENS unit isn’t a cure-all. After a few hours, my neck pain returned, if a bit quieter than before. To truly solve the problem, both Babaria and Westervelt said I need to address its cause: Invest in a more ergonomic work setup, take frequent screen breaks, and maybe even consult with a physical therapist. I promised them I’d think about it.